Boscow, a 20-something Sudanese refugee employed by IsraAID’s field office in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya near the Somalia border, tells me that he arrived at the camp a few years ago. His village was attacked and his family were able to escape. Boscow and his brother made it to Kakuma safely but were separated from their parents during the journey. Later, Boscow’s brother wanted to go back to Sudan and look for their parents. That was a long time ago he says, his lower lip trembling and eyes darting away.
I traveled to the Kakuma refugee camp last week with a humanitarian aid delegation. I was invited to participate in the mission as a member of the board for the newly established Cadena South Africa office. A very generous donation from the Mexican Jewish community through the the Museum of Memory and Tolerance in Mexico City (Museo Memoria Y Tolerancia) and in partnership with the Cadena Foundation, IsraAID and the International Rescue Committee, all made this mission possible. We delivered critical medical supplies and emergency food products to the camp as part of Cadena’s “hand in hand” mandate.
Upon arrival we were met by extreme heat and dusty wind, bright and beaded long-necks of the local Turkana population, and desolation. Making our way into the camp, almost 200,000 people living in houses made out of mud and in UN refugee sponsored tents. Women walked past us, their colourful scarves blowing around them and children waved and ran after our convoy.
Kakuma means “nowhere” in Swahili. Nowhere as in: nowhere to go, no work to do, no future different than being wholly dependent on under resourced, cash strapped NGOs. No water (the UN has dug boreholes) and not enough food as the World Food Program has seen a 50% budget cut since 2014 when funds started to disappear into their own pockets. Children at the camp are allocated only two meals a day- a bit of fortified porridge powder in the morning and some other GMO food product for dinner.
When we arrived the 6 oxygen concentrators, one ultrasound machine (the first in the camp!) and hundreds of boxes of 500 calorie fortified peanut butter packets for the too many malnourished children had already been delivered. After an orientation on how the camp works and a briefing of which INGOs and NGOs are responsible for what services (at the time the Kenyan Red Cross had pulled out of the camp because of protests) we visited the health clinics.
Three newborn babies were lying in one of the oxygen concentrators in an understaffed maternity ward (one doctor and 10-15 births per day) sharing oxygen. They tell us that they are so very grateful that they will no longer have to choose whose life is more important now that they have the precious oxygen concentrator.
We passed a group of mothers holding sick babies waiting to be seen by a camp doctor. A proud, defiant, young mother with babe in tow grabbed at my hands. Sweat had formed on her brow and she was visibly distressed. The translator informs me that she is asking for my help to save her baby. I was frozen, staring at her baby’s abdomen and his intestines are showing. Overcome with emotion I turned away to hide my tears. Then I felt the presence of my grandmother Trude Schonwald z”l, who was 19 years old when Auschwitz was liberated. She is standing right next to me. She takes my shoulders firmly in her hands and turns my face back to this young mother. I ask how I can help.
Trude and her sister Lily survived the destruction of their family, the horrors of Auschwitz and a death march and made their way to a DP camp in Belgium, where they met fellow survivors, married in the camp and began to rebuild their lives.
A boat filled with survivors with nowhere else to go arrives at the Haifa port and are told that they must turn around and head to Cyprus. The British will not allow the refugees into pre state Israel. My grandmother cries out “no child of mine will be born in another camp!”
Her belly is huge, a healthy baby boy is miraculously growing inside her malnourished body. She looks 9 months pregnant. She pretends to go into labor. A British nurse takes pity on her. Right before their boat is forced to turn around, Trude is allowed to leave the ship with my grandfather Moshe, Z”L.
My father is born in Haifa a few months later. They name him Joseph, and call him “Yossi”, after one of Trude’s baby brothers who was murdered by the Nazis.
In the 1950’s Moshe and Trude relocate to Liberia with the Solel Boneh construction group as part of Israel’s ‘friendly diplomacy’ African initiative. They live deep in the Liberian jungle. Moshe builds roads, schools, administrative buildings, and hospitals. My father and his younger brother David go to the local school, have exotic pets and many wild adventures with albino alligators.
Kakuma showed me that the refugee crisis of the 21st century is far from over. There are more than 300 new arrivals per day just at Kakuma alone. In 20 years time (or less) the gulf states will be uninhabitable. Coupled with rising sea levels in coastal areas we are ill prepared for the impact these looming massive migrations will have.
Here in South Africa, in just a few weeks, the city of Cape Town will be the first city in history to run out of water. The city is gearing up for #DayZero (at the zero hour) when municipal water taps will be turned off and Capetonians will have to queue for water rations. Today we are assisting the Kakuma refugee camp, tomorrow we might have to manage a refugee camp full of thirsty Capetonians in Gauteng.
We are witnessing the devastating effects of climate change. Resources are becoming scarce and refugees are a financial strain and burden for nation states. We are also living in a historical moment that demands us to take personal and collective responsibility on many levels: environmental, economic and social. While in Kakuma, I grappled with all these complexities, the threat to deport the 40,000 and my own emotions around Israel’s current extremely challenged moral compass.
While Israel is committed to finding human-centred, innovative, sustainable solutions to many of the world’s most pressing issues, the refugee crisis has thus far not been managed through this lens or with compassion from the side of the government, which is incredibly painful for me.
Through organisations like Cadena and IsraAID, the Jewish people will continue to work tirelessly to provide emergency aid and relief for refugees. If they are lucky, some of the 40,000 will end up at Kakuma, where IsraAID’s psychological support programs can help them heal from this most recent trauma.