To Dadaab & Back (Twice): On the International Writing Program’s 2009 & 2011 Educational Trips to the Largest Refugee Community in the World.
In July, the United Nations High Council on Refugees (UNHCR) increased its estimate for the number of refugees living in the Hagadera, Ifo, and Dagahaley refugee camps near Dadaab Kenya to nearly 440,000 people. The camps comprise the largest refugee community in the world, and are located in Kenya’s remote and arid northeast, approximately 100 kilometers west of the Kenya-Somalia border. Put simply, Dadaab is an unlikely place to find American writers teaching poetry workshops to refugees.
But in June of 2009 and again in May of this year, placing American writers in the camps’ schools is precisely what University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) and the Department of State aimed to do. With the assistance of the U.S. Embassy Somalia Desk and the UNHCR, the IWP’s 2009 and 2011 excursions to Dadaab put American poets in direct contact with student refugees for multiple days of creative writing workshops.
The 2009 delegation included IWP director, the poet Christopher Merrill, and American writers Tom Sleigh, Eliot Weinberger, and Terese Svoboda. This May, American poets Major Jackson and Jenny Browne journeyed to Dadaab for a second series of classes.
“Traveling to Dadaab was no simple process,” says Kelly Bedeian, the IWP program officer who accompanied the writers on both trips. “And seeing the camps for the first time is rather overwhelming. It is almost too much to comprehend and take in.”
In addition to the logistical difficulties associated with traveling to such a remote location, strict regulations were in place for the IWP delegations. “Because the UNHCR is responsible for the health and safety of visitors to the camps, we had to follow their protocol at all times during the trips,” says Bedeian. “This meant traveling between and within the camps by police escort, being inside the UNHCR compound by curfew, and even checking our shoes for scorpions.”
Built in 1991 in response to the beginning of Somalia’s long-running civil war, the camps have been growing each year since. Once intended to provide temporary relief and shelter for approximately 80,000 potential refugees, the camps have today become the de-facto permanent home of an entire generation of young people who have never experienced life outside of a refugee camp.
While the geo-political situation is Dadaab is tenuous and the logistics of arranging a visit complicated, it’s that generation of young people who were on Christopher Merrill’s mind even before his 2009 visit. “The first priority in any emergency situation is indeed to provide food, shelter, and medical aid—to save lives,” he says, “but once basic needs are met there is an imperative to provide educational opportunities.”
While such educational opportunities could be taken for granted in the United States, where creative writing workshops and programs abound, the Dadaab workshops are particularly significant because the young people who have grown up in the camps and who are struggling to attain an education represent one of the least-served and least-visible young populations in the world. In Merrill’s words, they are “a generation that must not be lost.”
From Merrill’s perspective, the moral stakes of such educational outreach are high even while the creative writing workshops themselves seemed to offer some levity to the typical Dadaab school day. As Eliot Weinburger wrote following the 2009 trip to Dadaab, the majority of students in the camps “had never been asked to express themselves ‘creatively,’ had never written anything that wasn’t checked for grammar and spelling and then graded. It was obviously the first time that a few hours of school were pure fun.”
The sharing of creative work was also fulfilling for the IWP instructors, according to Merrill. “Educators always have a moral imperative to share what they know,” he says. “And since we have had the opportunity to work with young people in Dadaab, we have come to recognize what a crucial difference can be made in the lives of individuals.”
The results of the 2009 and 2011 delegations also had lasting ramifications for the student populations of the camps. During one of the 2011 classroom sessions with students from the two secondary schools in the Hagadera camp, Bedeian was greeted by Abdi Salah Ahmed, a young man who remembered the 2009 IWP delegation and who had subsequently become the Chairperson of the Hagadera Secondary School Journalism Club.
In 2009, Ahmed participated in the workshop led by Sleigh, Svoboda, Merrill, and Weinberger and had recently been involved in publishing the Journalism Club’s first print newsletter, the Hagadera Illuminator. Featuring news and personal narratives from around the camp, the Illuminator also includes short stories and poetry written by refugees.
During Bedeian’s 2011 return trip, she also encountered Moulid Iftin Hujale, an Ifo camp-refugee who had taken the 2009 writing workshops and who was eager to share new work with the 2011 delegation. “Before he shared his poem, he told the group about meeting the instructors from two years ago when he was a student,” says Bedeian. “He said those workshops changed his life.”
Hujale is now the managing editor The Refugee, a print periodical supported by funding from FilmAid International, a New York City-based non-profit that provides a variety of cultural, educational, and artistic outlets to underserved international communities. At The Refugee, Hujale’s aim is to disseminate news and stories from within the camps and to tell the stories of those who have been resettled.
Recently, the paper launched a blog and a Facebook page, through which the organization has been providing original reportage about life in the camps, covering everything from recent flooding to the condition of the camps’ markets. At the close of the 2011 poetry workshop, Hujale collected poems and other creative work for inclusion in an upcoming issue.
Bedeian says that witnessing a creative writing workshop in Dadaab and watching the writing community within the camps grow was transformative. “Seeing such beautiful words come out of such dire circumstances is inspiring and can't help but alter your view on the world and your own life,” she says. “For those in the camps, writing is a creative outlet that takes little more than a pen and paper. It is a way to share their experience with the outside world that often knows little about their situation. It is a chance for them to be something other than a refugee.”
— Nate Brown