My first time in Kenya, 11 years ago, I emerged from the Nairobi airport into a sea of unfamiliar faces half the world from everything I understood. My fiancée was among them. She ran out and threw her arms around me to rush me off to the Klub House where we made up for the weeks we’d been estranged. Only a short mile away was the Westgate Shopping Mall. There, 9 years later, terrorists would kill 63 innocent men, women and children in the name of Allah.
Kenya has had a hell of a year and a half. Students’ reactions last Sunday represent the depth of trauma this country is suffering. Hearing the benign recoil of an electric transformer popping, the campus assumed it was al Shabaab on another murder spree. People stampeded (here), 141 were injured and 1 killed. But not by al Shabaab. By fear.
Last week, after 147 people were killed at Garissa, Deputy President William Ruto said, “The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change” (here). To date, the Kenyan government has taken several decisive moves in response, including…
- Proposing a Wall be Built Between Kenya & Somalia (here),
- Shutting down businesses that transfer money to Somalia (here),
- Branding 2 human rights advocacy groups as terrorist supporters (here), and…
- Demanding the UN move the world’s largest refugee camp to Somalia (here).
The last of these headlines holds my attention.
When I returned from Kenya that first time, I chaperoned Dadaab refugees from Nairobi to JFK for the UN’s International Office of Migration. Twenty-three Somali Bantu people, families who’d never seen stairs, let alone escalators and moving walkways, airplanes let alone sat suspended in the air for 12 hours. In the beginning, they were wide-eyed toward twenty-first-century airports. But they soon shut down, going through the motions, overwhelmed.
These people were more than willing to embrace such terrifying feats of mankind because of what they were leaving behind. Because this is better than what they left behind in Somalia. By definition, refugees are fleeing for their lives. By some recent accounts (here), maybe Dadaab has outlived its usefulness. But wrong assumptions like Time Magazine‘s representing the refugee camp as though it were synonymous with terrorism (here) aren’t helping.
As Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed said, Kenya has been “a frontline state in the war against terror” (here). The US has backed and advised Kenya’s war on al-Shabaab as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) since 2011 (here). While the Obama Administration interprets the crises of the last 19 months as al-Shabaab’s desperation (here), that desperation is targeting Kenyans with refugees in the crossfire. While Kenya struggles with the repercussions of backing the war on terror, the US and others discourage travel, kicking the tourism-dependent country while it’s down.
Kenya matters. I hurt for the country’s losses. And I worry for its wellbeing. There are no easy answers, but this fear, violence and economic hardship are a recipe for more problems.
As we were suspended–the Somali Bantu and I–endlessly it seemed, over the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and America, I turned toward one of the trauma-worn behind me. “You see all that outside below us?”
The blank stare looked sideways out the window, focussed for a minute, looked back at me, unimpressed.
“That’s all water. Water. As far as you can see both sides the plane. Water.”
Without reaction, he turned again to look out the window. A full minute he faces remained unchained. Then with dawning realization, his eyes grew wide. His face snapped toward mine. “That’s… water?”
I confirmed, and he started shouting at the other twenty-two people, telling them in their language what he’d discovered. I imagine the pilot must have had to adjust to the lurch as nearly everyone in our cabin moved to our side, looking excitedly out the window.
Imagine if hope were so staggering.