Elimisha Kakuma

Kakuma Refugee Camp

Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp was established in 1992 with the arrival of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," who were fleeing civil war. What was meant to be a temporary refuge has become a permanent settlement of over 160,000 refugees.

Kakuma is located in the far northwest corner of Kenya, between Lake Turkana, South Sudan, and Uganda. The climate is hot and dry, suitable more for herding goats and camels than agriculture. A laaga (dry river bed) cuts through the camp but becomes impassable, and dangerous, when rain comes to the mountains at its source far away. Water for drinking and cleaning comes either from pits dug in the laaga or from unreliable and overcrowded pumps that operate only twice a day for an hour and a half.

Established as a temporary humanitarian solution for a few thousand "Lost Boys" of Sudan in 1992, it has now existed for three decades and houses over 180,000 people representing over 20 nationalities from east and central Africa - although many were born in the camp, and it is the only home they have known. Even if a refugee is born in Kakuma, even if their parents were born in Kakuma, that refugee cannot claim Kenyan citizenship; legally, they are a citizen of the country from which their ancestors fled, a country they have never seen. Refugees are not free to travel elsewhere in Kenya without government permission, and risk arrest, abuse, and demands for bribes if found outside the camp.

An overhead view of Kakuma homes

Although the Kakuma Refugee Camp has over the years provided a safe haven for people fleeing violence, for many residents it has become a 'voluntary prison.' In exchange for relative safety, they have agreed to be interned in Kakuma with no release date. Returning to their countries of citizenship might mean risking their lives, they have no right to create new lives elsewhere in Kenya, and precious few are approved for resettlement in the US, Canada, or Europe. Governments and NGOs treat them as if they are good for whom there is no buyer: dropped in a warehouse and forgotten.

In Kakuma, education offers children an escape from a difficult reality. But more importantly, a decent education creates a pathway to opportunities for children and their families. However, as students get older, access to higher education becomes all but unattainable. According to a 2017 UNHCR Report, only three percent of refugees worldwide, and only one percent of refugees in East Africa, make it to college or university.

Children face numerous obstacles when pursuing education, including poverty and harsh weather conditions; a lack of trained teachers, textbooks, and materials; overcrowded schools-with class sizes over 100; and a lack of basic needs such as food and water. In addition to those challenges, girls must clean, cook, wash, collect water, and take care of younger family members all while facing social and family pressure to marry young and/or drop out of school. Those who manage to overcome these obstacles and finish secondary school face a dead end, without access to higher education, despite having the passion and talent to continue. While some organizations offer support, many high-achieving students in Kakuma lack the technology, money, and information necessary to access college, hence the creation of Elimisha Kakuma.