Somali Refugees in Dadaab Need More Support

The Dadaab refugee camp in Northeastern Kenya is over 20 years old and has received successive waves of refugees, reflecting the political turmoil and violence against civilians that continues to engulf Somalia. I visited the camp this week and met with many Somalis who have fled civil war and sought refuge here. After talking with these people, it is clear to me that the United States and the international community must invest in the future of Somalia's refugees if we want to build a peaceful Somalia.

Originally built for 90,000 people, Dadaab now hosts over three times that number and represents the fourth largest population center in Kenya. Yet, it is located in a harsh, arid land, dotted with thorn trees, away from any city or transit route, and subject to drought, water shortages, and sometimes severe flooding during the rainy season. Nonetheless, more refugees are trying to enter the camp. Now, almost 8,000 women, children, and old people have been sent back across the Kenyan border by the Kenyan government, which is wary of increases in the refugee population. Dadaab did not offer these people sanctuary, and these Somalis are once again at risk of hunger, rape, and violence.

For most of the Somali refugees here, Dadaab is the only home they have known, and a third generation is being born in this poor haven. Peace in Somalia is an increasingly distant possibility, and none of the refugees we have spoken to is even close to contemplating going back. But Kenya has no integration policy for Somali refugees, and it is difficult for them to leave the camps, find work, and establish a normal life.

Despite these limitations, international aid agencies have developed activities and an English-language education program based on a Kenyan curriculum. And even in the desperate situation of this overcrowded and isolated camp, some good news can emerge. I met Mohamed, an elder with a serious disability. He introduced himself as a religious man and explained that he has put his nine daughters -- all born in the camp -- through school and is fighting the tradition of early marriages. He is supported by others, who value education as the single best benefit refugees can gain from their exile. And yet, because of limited resources, barely half of school-aged children in the camp manage to enroll in school. Funding has decreased over time as donors respond to new emergencies and grow tired of the intractable situation in Somalia.

Mohamed and others like him are the key to a new U.S. strategy towards Somalia. These refugees seek and value the opportunities that education brings to their children. However, in the last two years, more than half of U.S. funding to Somalia was spent on security and support to the weak Somali government. There has been little to show for this money. On the contrary, the Somali government has been unable to perform even the most elementary government functions, and insurgent groups have become more radicalized in their opposition to a government that they see as an entirely Western project.

The United States needs to first recognize that the current government has little support amongst Somalis, and that any government that does may not mirror the American governance system. At the moment, the only truly unequivocal strategy of engaging Somalis, and channeling their support away from radical Islamic groups, is to work with the diaspora and the more than 600,000 refugees that have fled fighting. It is the Somali youth who will play a decisive role in their country's future. If the United States spent similar amounts of money investing in the education and skills training of Somalis in exile as it does on training fighters to counter the Islamic Somali militants, we would be far more likely to increase stability and prosperity to the war-torn Horn of Africa. The United States can and should do one thing right to truly help Somalis: invest in the education of refugees.