UPDATE 09. December 2019: What the UN, WorldBank, WEF and other global players have in mind, who see refugees just as either resource or nuisance.

ICYMI: What it’s like to be a Somali refugee in Kenya

The Global Refugee Crisis: What can People in Kenya Do to Help?

By Serah Njambi Rono - 17. November 2015

There is a difference between Asylum Seekers and Refugees”, Duke Mwancha, Communications Associate at UNHCR in Kenya, reminded the Hacks/Hackers community in Nairobi last Friday.

#HHNBO meets monthly to discuss pertinent issues, brainstorm and collaborate on plausible solutions. In August, AfricaHackon talked to the community about Cyber Security and Privacy Online. In October, we talked about Net Neutrality and why it should matter to Hacks and Hackers.

Last Friday, driven by current affairs in the world and inspired by the 19 Million Project (an 11-day Hackathon on the Refugee Crisis), #HHNBO met at the Nairobi Garage to discuss the global refugee crisis and what hacks and hackers can do to help.

With 51 people in attendance,the community was privileged to have the UNHCR in KenyaREFUNITE as well as The Humanitarian Data Exchange(HDX) share what they do, challenges they face as well as opportunities that exist for hacks and hackers to plug in and help.

REFUNITE (@refunite)

REFUNITE is an online and mobile tracing tool helping refugees reconnect with family they have lost contact with during escape. REFUNITE empowers refugees and displaced people to take the search for their family and loved ones into their own hands, capitalizing on the ever-increasing mobile phone usage across the globe. We focus on making our service available on any entry-level mobile phone.


#UNHCR is dedicated to providing life-changing humanitarian support to refugees, displaced and stateless people. Kakuma, Dadaab, Nairobi, Kenya.

HDX (@humdata) | Twitter

The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) is an open platform for sharing data. The goal of HDX is to make humanitarian data easy to find and use for analysis. Launched in July 2014, HDX has been accessed by users in over 200 countries and territories.

A short recap of the event(from #HHNBO’s Twitter hashtag):

REFUNITE’s Tech Lead, Laban Mwangi and Communications Assistant, Lotta Relander delivered a keynote on the organizations activities and achievements. While some refugees used Social Media platforms to keep in touch, a vast majority do not have this luxury, the community learnt.

Some of the challenges REFUNITE faces include making complex tech accessible from low-end mobile phones & creating a global, multilingual platform.

Duke Mwancha from the UNHCR in Kenya gave us great insight on realities on the ground with regard to the law and situation with refugees in Kenya.

Moses Sitati, Lab Manager at the Humanitarian Data Exhange here in Nairobi walked us through HDX’s data portal, examples of tools and data stories that communities have built using data on this platform. Find Sitati’s full presentation here.

Here’s a compilation of some of the exemplary work that is being done by communities all over the world to alleviate the crisis in one way or another.

[N.B.: This compilation has in the meantime been removed - seems not much lasted of what the people had in mind.]

The Hacks/Hackers community in Nairobi lives here. Join us today.


Serah Njambi Rono

Serah Njambi Rono

Tech and Communities. Evolving dataset.

Hacks/Hackers Africa

Hacks/Hackers Africa

Journalism x Technology. The umbrella group for African chapters of Hacks/Hackers, where civic tech pioneers play with ways to rewire the media.


What the UN, WorldBank, WEF and other global players have in mind, who see refugees just as either resource or nuisance: 

Beyond policies, pathways and pledges: How to truly help refugees

By Joelle Hangi - 09. December 2019

An aerial view shows recently constructed houses at the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana county, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, January 31, 2018

Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, home to 168,000 people - including the author Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

When I fled my home and sought shelter in Kakuma refugee camp, I was at one of the lowest points in my life. But not the lowest.

It had taken me two weeks to journey from my home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Kakuma, in a remote corner of northern Kenya. It was early 2014, and I had no possessions other than a little money and the clothes I wore. I was 21.

As a survivor of sexual violence, persecution and political conflict, my road seemed to have ended in a refugee camp, without any hope of returning to my homeland. The things I had taken with me from my beautiful country were only pain, rejection, shame and hopelessness.

My only ambition now was for a peaceful and stable life. I paid little attention to the aid workers from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, or the countless other partner organisations working in Kakuma.

But after a while I started to notice them – to ask myself who these people were, what they were doing, and why. And I saw how they were trying to help me and my fellow refugees.

Five years on, and I am writing this on the eve of the Global Refugee Forum, an international gathering in Geneva of political leaders, diplomats, businesspeople, humanitarian aid workers, development agencies and others. This event is to raise support for refugees and their hosts, exchange ideas and good practices, and explore new responses to forced displacement.

Since arriving in Kakuma, I have come to admire humanitarian workers and I want to give something back by speaking up for refugees and making sure the rest of the world does not forget their plight.

So, as we prepare to talk of policies, pathways and pledges, here are the principles that this refugee believes should guide the thoughts and actions of those who attend the forum.

We need our freedom, by which I mean the freedom to forge our own futures. Life as a refugee is tough. Enrolling in school, getting a job, opening a bank account, starting a business, travelling around without the police stopping you: rights and tasks most people take for granted can be difficult, and in some places almost impossible, for refugees.

Taking the decisions that would get your life moving forward seems beyond you. If you cannot go to school, your hands are tied – and millions of school-age refugee children are shut out of the classroom. If access to education, employment, housing, healthcare and other areas is also restricted, you are forever dependent on others.

Enrollment of refugees in education

For refugees, education is the surest road to recovering a sense of purpose and dignity


If we can get our independence back, however, it can be a different story. Then we can go back home if it is safe or make the most of our new lives if it is not. Yes, we need support to survive, but we also need backing for refugee initiatives that will mean we can stand up for ourselves.

In Kakuma, gradually I found my feet. Initially I was not among the lucky few to get the university scholarship I needed. But I took other courses on offer – in English, cinematography, photography and journalism, as well as human rights with the University of Geneva.

Finally, I was able to enrol for a distance-learning diploma in liberal studies from Regis University, a private Jesuit university in Denver, Colorado, with the support of a charity called Jesuit Worldwide Learning. I graduated in 2018 and now I am studying for a bachelor’s degree in business communications with Southern New Hampshire University – which, like JWL, brings higher education to refugees and displaced communities.

Thousands of others in Kakuma and elsewhere do not have these opportunities and have no idea what their future holds. Some refugees sit and wait for their future to be decided … and 30 years later they are still there. Others make plans to do more in their communities and suddenly they are being moved on to another camp, settlement or location. As people in exile, whether the solution is resettlement, returning home or integration into the local community, it needs to be clear and timely. We need to know where we are going.

Statistics on displaced people

The number of displaced people worldwide is greater than the population of the UK

Image: UNHCR

Most of all, we need the outside world to understand what being a refugee means. This life is not something we chose. It was forced upon us. We need our dignity and we need you to see us for who we are.

As for me, for a long time I was not able to talk about what had happened back in the DRC. Yet I tried hard to overcome my trauma and shame. I am proud that I did so. I have shown it can be done.

To everyone attending the forum, I say: we need more of that help. It might be funding, or technical help, or resettlement places, or ways of including us in our host countries and enabling us to work with and alongside local people. Already there are many examples of cooperation – but with refugee numbers rising, we need more people to give us their support, and we need more governments, companies and communities to share the responsibility of helping refugees.

That is how we will regain our freedom and independence, and repay those who came to our aid.


Joelle Hangi, Director, Refugee Artists and Authors, Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Joelle Hangi is co-founder of Refugee Artists and Authors, an artistic initiative in Kakuma, and co-curator of I-Am-Kakuma, a website that tells the stories of refugees in the camp. https://www.i-am-kakuma.online/

Have you read?


What it’s like to be a Somali refugee in Kenya

Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have fled Al-Shabab across the border. But in Kenya, they face racial profiling, police searches and the constant threat of repatriation.

An elderly Somali woman sits outside a kitchen in the Hagadera sector of the Dadaab refugee camp, north of the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images


Mohamed Haji Hasan fled his home in Mogadishu four years ago, after the Islamist group Al-Shabab came to the office of the television station where he worked. They confiscated equipment and gave staff a stark choice: join us, or die. For a while he stayed on, lying low, but the text message threats became more frequent; the news of colleagues being shot dead too hard to ignore. He fled to Kenya, the neighbouring country, and sought asylum.

When I met him last year, he was living in the capital city Nairobi and working as a journalist for a Somali-language radio station. But all was not well. “I came here to get free, to get life. But everything has changed. The Kenyan government says that Al Shabab elements are present in Eastleigh [a Somali slum in Nairobi], the same element we ran away from. We don’t know where else to go.”

There is no doubt that Al-Shabab is active in Kenya. Perhaps the most high profile incident was the three day siege of the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, which left more than 175 people dead. More recently, in April this year, gunmen stormed the Garissa University College, not far from Kenya’s border with Somalia, and killed 147 students.

These horrendous attacks shocked Kenya and the world. They have had far-reaching implications – not least on Kenya’s large population of Somali refugees. After the Westgate attack, a crackdown began. Thousands of Somalis were rounded up, arrested, and some even deported to Mogadishu. After the Garissa attack, the situation has been little better. President Uhuru Kenyatta threatened to expel all Somali refugees from the country within three months. He vowed to close Dadaab, which as one of the world’s largest and oldest refugee camps is home to more than 350,000 Somalis. Government officials said that Dadaab was a breeding ground for Al-Shabab. Meanwhile, Eastleigh was, yet again, subject to an intense search operation.

For the residents of Eastleigh, this is nothing new. When I met Mohamed in May last year, he said he had been searched 8 times that month alone. His colleague, Said Hassan Anteno, who had lived in Kenya for five years, had a similar story to tell. “Sometimes you can’t get to work freely because of the checkpoints. It used to be a business hub, but now it’s a military frontline. Police intimidation is part of our daily life. When they see Somali person, they assume that you are illegal. I have paid a lot of money in bribes. They don’t accept that I am legal, even though I have a refugee card. They say it’s fake and demand money.”

Under pressure from the UN, Kenyatta has now pulled back from the threat of forced repatriations for Somalis, some of whom have lived in Kenya for decades. But Somali refugees are still under enormous pressure. According to Refugees International, the two initiatives – a clamp down on Dadaab and the security operation in Nairobi – has opened the door to increased levels of “abuse, extortion, and harassment of refugees by the Kenyan police”. This affects every aspect of life; Somali residents describe being unable to board buses if they have large bags, as they are deemed a security threat. As Said and Mohamed described, police regularly stop them and demand ID, and then ask for bribes. Houses in Somali areas are raided at all times of day or night.

This crackdown, which according to most analysts and anecdotal reports is based more on racial profiling than any meaningful intelligence, has also affected Kenyan citizens of Somali descent. Abdirisak Osman was born in Nairobi to Somali parents, and has a Kenyan passport. “I was born and bred in Kenya. I’m a Kenyan, but just because of my look, my appearance, I get the same treatment, even if I produce my ID or speak Swahili. It’s profiling the Somalis. How can I be patriotic when I am treated like this?”

All of these men, like many other Somali refugees in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya, have the legal right to be in the country, yet find themselves vilified by the media and harassed by the police. “Eastleigh has become a hunting zone,” said Abdirisak. “Every predator is coming here to seek bribes.”

This harsh treatment comes despite the fact that security experts say that there is no evidence linking either Dadaab or refugees more generally to Al-Shabab. “This is collective punishment,” said Mohamed. Kenya is home to rising religious tension and longstanding ethnic rivalries; it is against this backdrop that the vilification of Somalis has become so prevalent. It is difficult to see the continued scapegoating of this community as anything other than a government desperate to detract attention from its inability to protect citizens by scapegoating the other.

“We Somalis are the most victimised people in this world,” Said told me last year. “Al-Shabab, they kill us, back home and here. At the same time, we are being accused of being Al-Shabab. We want to stay here, but it’s tough. Kenya was Plan A, but I think we need to find Plan B, because we cannot live like this. We cannot survive.”


Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.