Children of the Camp: The Lives of Somali Youth Raised in Kakuma Refugee Camp

Author:   C L Grayson
Publisher:   Berghahn Books
Reviewer:   Tasha Agarwal

Grayson, C. L. (2017). Children of the Camp: The Lives of Somali Youth Raised in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, Berghahn Books, New York, Pages 232,ISBN 978-1-78533-631-7

Anything can happen here but nothing can be done here…In exile, one is pressed to stop being in exile, either by moving elsewhere or by dissolving into the place’ are Bauman’s reflection on exile, used by Grayson, to provide a glimpse of daily struggle which Somalian refugees have to go through, to survive. The title of the book is self-descriptive about the content which one may expect from the book. The book dwells into the lives of Somalian refugee at Kakuma camp, one of the few camps in Kenya, by interviewing and recording the narratives of the Somalian youths. The author, along with being a researcher, is also positioned as a teacher involved in taking journalism classes for these children of the camp. Therefore, by classroom activities of storytelling and making students click pictures, reflecting their own experiences and ideas of the camp, the author tries to make sense of the daily lives of young people born in the camp. The book has been enriched by the use of narratives of the young children regarding their ideas about camp and the experience of growing up in heterogeneous refugee population of the Kakuma camp.

The book has been divided into ten chapters wherein each chapter smoothly leads way for the next chapter and hence, has been arranged very systematically. The introductory chapter establishes the field of research by providing every single detail of the camp, right from geographical location and time period to social time and their respective significance in shaping the ideas about the past, present and future. Grayson has contextualized the different interpretation of the camp explaining how the idea of camp has evolved and changed from one point of time to another. In doing so, the author has also touched upon the political motive of camps and has established camps as not only a site of confinement, but also a space for (re)invention, (re)definition and connectedness to the world. The author has also put special emphasis on clearing out the methodological consideration by providing the operational definition of the terms used and also by focusing on the complexities arising due to power relation between researcher and researched, getting entry into the field and establishing rapport, the importance of giving back to the researched, the outsider-insider interplay and the identity of the researcher as a white women in 30s, with easy access to humanitarian aid and UNHCR. She detailed out her strategy of conducting the study by tactfully including the insiders into the study, either as an accomplice or as an interpreter; though both of them have certain disadvantage as a researcher which has not been touched upon. Grayson explains how her free photography and journalism classes helped her to understand the psychology of the young Somalian with respect to the issues existing in the camp and the heterogeneity of experience which is gendered and influenced by the living environment.

The second chapter provides a historical briefing about the Somalian exodus and Kenya’s asylum policy. It discusses about the various camps in Kenya and how the refugee gradually settled down in Kakuma camp, making their way through different camps. Since narrative is one of the important tools used by the author, she provides an elaborate stance of narrative as methodology. She talks about post memory which is mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projections and creation. Thus the narrative of children were not formed by their own experiences but by consistent storytelling by their friends and families. The author also talks about autobiographical narratives which goes beyond individual to include historical time and place within which lives are lived and interpreted. The third chapter discusses the changing composition of Kakuma camp over the period of time and the issues threat and insecurity, which were the part of day-to-day living of the people in the camp. The chapter has also touched upon the importance Somalian diaspora and remittances as an important means of expanding economic activity in the camp.

The Third chapter captures the experience of young Somalian refugees regarding growing up in camp site which is generally conceived as an ideal temporary settlement. The author has juxtaposed the situation by bringing out the reality of what goes inside the camp and how people negotiate their daily lives. The chapter predominantly focuses on education and future prospects after education. It talks about the difficulties which one faces in continuing their education where the author discusses about language issue, financial issue, lack of infrastructure, safety and security concerns etc. The future prospects after completion of education is getting employed either as salaried worker or incentive worker. Due to their refugee status, they are not allowed to be employed as salaried worker and UNHCR seems to be the only venture for being employed as incentive worker, where the work environment itself seems to be exploitative and demotivating. The author could have explored other dimensions of development such as health, environment etc. which were completely missed out.

The fourth chapter dwells into the process of integration of refugees belonging to different ethnicity, culture, tradition and practices into a path of convergence, not necessarily to that of culture of destination country. The chapter seems to be moving around the issue of Somalis in general to Somalian women in particular. The author could have spared a separate chapter to discuss specifically on women’s issue as there are ample dimensions which could have been covered. Overall, the chapter brings out that despite the existence of stigma and taboos against other communities in the camp, the people gradually started converging their ideas to co-exist peacefully. The social issues received attention, though the voices were still punished. The importance of elders in Somalian culture and the difference between Somalians in camp and Somalians in Somalia has been discussed. Despite the existing difficulties, the camp is also seen as the site of emancipation. This emancipation has been gained by intermingling the ideas from different ethnic groups.

The next chapter deals with the process of interaction between camp and the outside world. The chapter has been divided into two parts: when people in Kakuma visit other country and when people from other parts of the world visit Kakuma. In the first part, the author attempts to elaborate on psychological adjustment which is seen among the people when they migrate to other country, where she writes ‘At first, people hated it, wanted to be back in camp, feel disoriented and kept up very regular contact with people in Kakuma. Then they got used to their new settings and phoned a little less often.’ Further, she brings out the label by which people willing to migrate, are tagged; heaviest among all is ‘rejected’ which is considered as taboo in the camp. The second part where she talks about people from different parts of the world visiting camp, she predominantly focuses on importance of remittances in the camp economy and the importance of communication in the transmission of ideas and knowledge, making them capable of imagining the realities existing in different parts of the world.

Chapter 6 and 7 deals with the issue of mistrust dwelling among refugees and humanitarian organization towards each other. The chapter looks into the perspective of refugees regarding portrayal of their image in front of humanitarian organization and the perspective of aid workers towards refugees. It also describes the scenario of mistrust between the Somalian refugee community and other communities of the camp. Thus, the chapter deals with the struggle of survival in the atmosphere of mistrust. Given such an atmosphere, Chapter 8, 9 and 10 captures the aspiration on the young Somalians about their future, their mobility towards West, their career advancement etc. Restricted by the existing constraints of the camp, the chapter deals with feeling of hope and frustration, of gains and losses and of better world in future.

The book is quite rich in terms of its content and provides the reader with an experience of life in refugee camps. Conducting research on refugee camps is always a challenging task. The author certainly makes sense by bringing several issues into a meaningful perspective. Though the book, contain diverse information, few chapters by the end of the book seems to be quite repetitive and could have been clubbed together to form a single chapter. Along with that, the book does not provide a detailed theoretical information for the same. Despite these lacunas, the book is still quite helpful for the researchers working in the field of refugees and forced migration. Owing to the lack of complex theories and simple language used by the author, the book can also be used as a simple literature textbook at undergraduate or post graduate level.


By Tasha Agarwal, Research Scholar, Ambedkar University Delhi, Email: [email protected]



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