TOURS KENYAN REFUGEES
Copyright 2002 United Nations High Commission
[ October 15th 2002 ]
actress Angelina Jolie leaned forward eagerly
as a young Sudanese girl quietly recounted her
tale of how she had fled war and hunger in her
homeland and finally made her way to Kakuma refugee
camp just over the border in north-western Kenya.
"She lost her entire family when she was only
five years old and has been in this camp for more
than 10 years. What do you say to someone who
loses her whole family at such an age?" asked
Jolie, visibly moved as she heard this and many
other stories from refugee girls who had flocked
to welcome her on this visit on Sunday. The sprawling
camp at Kakuma is home to some 80,000 people.
of the girls moved Jolie, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador,
close to tears as they told her how much they
wanted to go to school and receive an education,
but for a variety of reasons were often unable
to do so. "These girls are so strong, so inspiring.
They want an education because they want a better
life, they know they don't have to stay forever
near the bottom of the pile and want to move up,"
Jolie said after sitting and chatting with the
girls under the shade of a tree at one reception
Ambassador shook her head in disbelief as she
heard how many of the girls and women in the camp
were subjected to various forms of violence -
from rape to genital mutilation - and how many
were unable to attend school due to domestic chores.
"On this trip my main concern has become the plight
of refugee women and particularly girls. In Kakuma,
close to 1,000 girls are out of school. I was
upset to find that a good part of them are in
this situation because of both early and forced
marriages. I saw 12-year-old mothers!" she said.
the problems of young girls being abducted for
marriage and early pregnancies, the UN refugee
agency has set up programmes in the camp, like
increasing the number of female police officers
to encourage reporting of such incidents. A magistrate
from the nearby town of Lodwar travels to Kakuma
regularly to hear cases in a mobile court set
up to handle various cases, including the abduction
of girls for marriage.
women committees established throughout the camp
help counsel victims of early pregnancies and
speak to communities about the risks of female
genital mutilation. In school, an incentive programme
is being run to encourage more girls to attend
school. Attendance remains very irregular depending
on domestic pressures refugee girls may face at
home. "As a refugee girl, you are expected to
stand in line for hours to fetch water and carry
it home, go out and forage for firewood, and cook
and clean for the family," said Jolie, noting
that girls had to confront many other barriers
in order to receive a decent education.
Ambassador made a personal donation of $200,000
to UNHCR's work in Kenya, earmarking $50,000 of
her donation to build a new school for girls at
the camp. Many of its prospective pupils sang
and clapped their hands as she unveiled a plaque
and planted a tree at the proposed site. "With
this help, and the construction of this school,
future generations of girls will be saved. Work
begins tomorrow," declared Kofi Mable, head of
UNHCR's Kakuma sub-office. The plaque reads: "Dedicated
to the emancipation of the refugee girls of Kakuma
and women's rights and freedom to education."
said she had also heard chilling accounts of children
as young as five being subjected to genital mutilation.
"A number of the older women have also been raped
and suffered other forms of sexual violence,"
she said. "There can be no compromise on the physical
safety and dignity of women as a whole, and particularly
the refugee girls."
who is in Kenya shooting the sequel to the movie,
"Tomb Raider", also visited several other projects
at the camp and handed out gifts ranging from
volleyballs to exercise books. She expressed concern
that a projected budget shortfall of some $20
million in UNHCR Kenya could lead to programme
cuts. "Most of the people here are already living
on the bare minimum - any cut means a life," she
said, and appealed to the international community
to continue to support "the work of UNHCR and
the other organisations working for refugees,
such as the World Food Programme – above all to
ensure there is funding made available".
Ambassador, who was greeted at Kakuma's dirt airstrip
by local Turkana tribeswomen, was given an enthusiastic
welcome wherever she went in the camp. Young children
sang songs and read poems of peace while their
parents and older refugees banged drums and performed
traditional dances. She began her tour by watching
a wheelchair basketball match by the victims of
landmines. She moved on to a construction site
where houses are built out of mud bricks.
which was created after thousands fled fighting
in south Sudan – Africa's longest-running civil
war – also houses refugees from Angola, Ethiopia,
Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Sudanese, however,
make up some 71 percent of the population. Jolie,
who has visited several refugee camps around the
world since she became a Goodwill Ambassador for
the UN refugee agency over one year ago, said
she had seen "worse and better" camps than Kakuma.
But what made this camp different was the number
of girls who simply did not have a chance for
a better life. "It is not fair, it is simply not
fair – every child, every girl has a right to
education. Here they have just enough to survive,
but they are so special, so spirited. It is I
who must learn from them," she later told a press
conference in Nairobi.
Representative to Kenya, George Okoth-Obbo, said
Jolie's visit was a shot in the arm to all concerned.
"It is wonderful and humbling that someone so
busy should find time to come here, to use her
renown, her artistry, her presence, just to bring
some joy into what is undoubtedly a hard life
for many of the people here," he said.