Bianca Giaever: On a freezing morning this fall, I biked to a school in my neighborhood in New York City.
Bianca Giaever: Hi!
Kids: Good morning Bianca!
Bianca Giaever: In a week, I was headed to Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. We hear about refugee camps all the time in the news…but there are certain questions that don’t get reported on very often.
Kid: Do you have a fire department?
Kid: Is there police there?
Kid: Is there a public library in the refugee camp?
Kid: Are there restaurants? Probably not but where do you get your food.
Kid: Are there landlords? Or do you have to pay for where you live? And, also, are there landlords?
Kid: Do you have pipe systems?
Kid: Is there a wall around the whole refugee camp?
Kid: Are there dentists? Yeah, I’m wondering what happens when they get cavities.
Bianca Giaever: I got on a plane, and I flew 14 hours to Nairobi. Then I got on a smaller plane and flew an hour to Dadaab refugee camp. The second you get off the plane, it hits you.
Bianca Giaever: It’s so hot.
Abdi Noor Ali: It’s very hot yeah? What degrees are we doing?
Bianca Giaever: We landed near the equator. The ground was dry and dusty. The part of the camp we’re in is called Hagadera.
Man 1: How is Hagadera?
Man 2: Hagadera is very nice.
Man 1: How is the business going?
Man 2: The business is going well.
Bianca Giaever: People are doing business all around us
Abdi Noor Ali: Yeah sales are happening everywhere…
Bianca Giaever: They’re giving haircuts, selling vegetables, shepherding livestock, buying camels.
When war broke out in Somalia, refugees crossed the border and set up camp here, near this town called Dadaab. They’re refugees because they were forced to flee their country. The refugees from Somalia thought they’d be in Dadaab for a couple months, maybe a year. Then one year turned into five, and five years turned into ten. Some people got married in the camp, had kids in the camp. Then they stayed so long, their kids had kids in the camp.
Now, there are two hundred and twenty thousand people living here, and it’s one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It’s been here almost 30 years.
Muzamil Mohamed: Hello!
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Ask me a question don’t say hello.
Muzamil Mohamed: How are you?
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: I’m fine.
Muzamil Mohamed: What’s your name?
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: My name is Abdi Rahman.
Muzamil Mohamed: How did you see the condition?
Abdirahman Abdikarims Khamis: The condition is very good today.
Bianca Giaever: The kid asking questions is named Muzamil. He’s 12 years old. For the rest of the story, we’re going to be sticking around Muzamil to find out what it’s like for him growing up in Dadaab.
Muzamil Mohamed: My name is Muzamil. I am the host of this radio story. They call me big ears.
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil’s nickname is Big Ears, because his ears stick straight out of his head.
Bianca Giaever: Do you know any other big ears?
Muzamil Mohamed: Yes. Many people.
Bianca Giaever: This is a common nickname — four other kids on his block are also called big ears. For kids here, the block you live on is a big deal. It means everything. These are the kids you’ll play with every day, who could be your best friends for the rest of your life.
Muzamil Mohamed: I live in Block K1.
Bianca Giaever: He lives on Block K1. He’s short, one of the smaller of his friends. He has light brown skin, and he’s often wearing his Liverpool soccer jersey.
Muzamil Mohamed: It is a Liverpool t-shirt
Bianca Giaever: Liverpool is his favorite team.
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil is from Somalia. All of his friends, neighbors, and teachers are also from Somalia. They speak Somali. Muzamil’s family told me they left in 2011, when he was 4years old. And a lot of the kids in New York asked me about what his life is like now, in Dadaab.
Kid: Well, my question is, what would a typical day be like for you?
Bianca Giaever: To find out, I followed Muzamil through a full day in his life, starting with his morning.
On a weekend, he wakes up at 6…
Muzamil Mohamed: I wake up at six sharp AM
Bianca Giaever: Six sharp?
Muzamil Mohamed: Yes.
Bianca Giaever: He hears the call to prayer.
Muzamil Mohamed: When I wake up I go to the mosque to pray.
Bianca Giaever: When I wake up I go to the mosque to pray.
Muzamil Mohamed: After I come back to the mosque I go to Dugsi.
Bianca Giaever: After the mosque, he goes to a type of school called Dugsi, where kids learn to recite the holy book of Islam, which is called the Koran.
This lasts two hours, in Arabic, a language Muzamil doesn’t even know. The goal is to have the whole Koran memorized, all 114 chapters. There are actually competitions between the boys and the girls to recite the chapters accurately. Almost everyone in Dadaab is Muslim.
After Koranic school, he eats injera.
Roopa Gogineni: What is injera?
Muzamil Mohamed: It is a small thing that we eat. It is like a bread.
Bianca Giaever: He whispers a short prayer right before taking the first bite. And then talks to his sister with his mouth full.
He gets up, grabs an egg from the plastic tub where the chicken lays it.
Muzamil Mohamed: It brings eggs, the chicken, everyday.
Bianca Giaever: One egg a day?
Muzamil Mohamed: Yes, it is a small egg.
Bianca Giaever: It is a small egg, he says.
Bianca Giaever: Do they have names?
Muzamil Mohamed: There’s no name for a chicken. They don’t have any name.
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil showed us around his home. His family spends most of their time outside sitting on mats in the shade. His home has three structures, two bedrooms, and a kitchen. They’re made out of woven branches and pieces of roofing metal.
Muzamil Mohamed: This is where we cook our food. It is built from sticks.
Bianca Giaever: It is made out of sticks he said. One of the kids in New York asked me:
Kid: Do you all share a room? Or do you have your own room? And how big is your house?
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil does share a room with his siblings. His brothers on one side and his sisters on the other. Their parents sleep in another structure. And next to that is the kitchen, which is very tiny. There’s just enough space for a wood fire to cook over.
In total, the house is eighteen Muzamil steps long.
Muzamil Mohamed: Two, three, four, five, six …
Bianca Giaever: And thirty Muzamil steps wide.
Muzamil Mohamed: Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…
Bianca Giaever: It’s a weekend, so the rest of the day is free to relax from school. He steps outside on his block and sees his friends.
It’s 10 AM now. The last chance to play soccer before the sun gets too hot. Which brings us to our next question:
Kid: What do you guys do for fun?
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil’s team just scored?
Abdi Noor Ali: Scored yeah.
Bianca Giaever: Woohoo!
Abdi Noor Ali: Muzamil’s team is always a winning team.
Bianca Giaever: There’s Aden. Oh!
Abdi Noor Ali: Today we have girl fans watching the game.
Bianca Giaever: Girl fans.
Abdi Noor Ali: Yeah.
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil’s team is called the 'New Stars'. Muzamil runs up the field, leaving his defensive position, and the other team scores.
Abdi Noor Ali: 1-1. I think it has something to do with Muzamil leaving his defensive role. He’s back now, after the damage is done.
Bianca Giaever: All the kids have bet ten shillings, that’s ten cents, on the game, and the winning team gets to keep the money. The kids have organized this whole system themselves. They even have a referee they’ve elected. He’s a teenager, wearing all white and playing music out of his pocket. They pay him 50 cents to ref the game. In the end, Muzamil’s team wins 2 to 1.
Abdi Noor Ali: Did you score a goal?
Abdi Noor Ali: Clap for him.
Bianca Giaever: While I was visiting the camp, and talking with Muzamil, I started poking around for some answers to those questions I had been asked.
To start with, no, there is not a fire department in Dadaab. But there have been fires, and the Kenyan Red Cross keeps a fire truck filled and ready to go at their headquarters.
Bianca Giaever: The Americans want to know if they go to the dentist.
Bianca Giaever: There are dentists available, but kidstend to only go if it’s an emergency. There’s no wall around the camp. And there aren’t refugee police, but there are Kenyan police. And they guard the edges of the camp.There is no public library, but the kids’ schools have libraries.
And there are restaurants. The popular one we visited was called the Ice Plant Restaurant, because there’s an ice factory next door, which we also visited…
There are no landlords. Everyone gets their plots of land for free. The Kenyan government owns the land, so technically they could be the landlords, but the camp is run by the United Nations, their special division for refugees.
There is a pipe system for water taps, which are open every morning from 6 to 8 AM, and sometimes in the afternoons, as well.
Essentially, the camp is a city. It has hospitals and internet cafes, and barber shops and even cemeteries. But it’s a city frozen in time. Refugees aren’t allowed to build permanent structures, they have no running water and limited electricity. It’s a city in limbo -- which means things are uncertain.
Back with Muzamil, it’s 2 PM, afternoon now. He leads us into Dadaab’s market.
Women on every corner sell camel milk in different flavors. There are hand painted signs advertising what’s being sold.
Bianca Giaever: There’s a bookshop called ‘Don’t Worry’.
Bianca Giaever: We passed by an electronic store. A lot of the kids I talked to in New York spend part of their weekends on computers or phones, and they were wondering if it was the same in Dadaab.
Kid: Do you have like electronic devices like computers or phones?
Kid: Have you ever watched a movie?
Kid: Um, like, have you ever seen or used like a TV or a phone?
Bianca Giaever: Most families don’t have computers, but they do have phones. Some have TV’s, though there isn’t always electricity. To answer the movies question, Muzamil leads us further into the market.
Bianca Giaever: Where are we going?
Muzamil Mohamed: Hello
Abdi Noor Ali: Where are you going?
Muzamil Mohamed: I am going to the cinema.
Bianca Giaever: To the cinema, he said. It’s the most famous cinema in town. It’s called Stone’s Cinema. It’s in a dark cavernous room and it looks like being inside of a big barn. The cinema has three screens. And inside, all three screens are playing, at full volume, all at once.
Bianca Giaever: This is the sound of three films at once. There’s a Bollywood film, a music video, and a soccer game.
Bianca Giaever: The most popular films are always Bollywood action films, films made in India. For those, hundreds of people will crowd into this space, many of them standing up.
Attached to the movie theater is a little dark room with disco lights, where boys huddle around 12 screens to play video games. Soccer video games, of course. It costs ten cents to play for ten minutes.
Ok, I’m going to try to answer more questions.
Kid: Do you have to build your own houses?
Kid: Do you like live in like certain parts of like the refugee camp? Or can you like put your tent wherever you want.
Bianca Giaever: No, you can’t choose where to put your home. You’re assigned a plot of land And you don’t have to build your own house. You can hire workers who will help you build it. That’s one of many jobs in the camp that people do, along with gathering firewood or running a shop in the market.
Kid: Is there like a chief person, like a leader?
Bianca Giaever: The refugees do have a government system. They elect a man and a woman to represent each block, as well as each section of the camp. We met one of the chairmen of the camp, a man named Father Kesaw.
Kesaw: [Kesaw speaking in Somali]
Roopa Gogineni: He wants to work as a truck driver or in the ocean.
Bianca Giaever: His dream is to live in California, and be a truck driver, like his friends in America. Or a fisherman, like he was in Somalia – 25 years ago.
Kid: Do you still like celebrate your birthday, and get like a present or two?
Bianca Giaever: Birthday parties are not a thing. Not everyone knows the day they were born, some just know the month or the year. A lot of people just use January 1 as their birthday.
Kids: Do you have to buy food and water or does the camp supply it? Can you trade like -a piece of lettuce for a carrot? Or do you have to pay for it?
Bianca Giaever: Not a lot of direct trading takes place -- mostly money is used. But people often do give loans or make deals. And a lot of Dadaab’s economy is fueled by money that relatives and friends send back from all over the world. Food is distributed by the World Food Program, and most of it is donated by the US.
Bianca Giaever: There’s big American flags on the bag. From the American people.
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil showed us through his family’s food rations...
Muzamil Mohamed: There’s many food. Sugarcane, rice, also there is many food. Wah! There is a rat here.
Bianca Giaever: There’s a rat here, he said. It was actually a mouse. Right now, there are so many refugees around the world, the World Food Program can’t keep up with the demand anymore .
On the radio, people in Dadaab listen for news about refugees. They told me they feel a connection to all refugees -- even if they’re across the world or speak a different language. But each crisis somewhere else means that their food supply in Dadaab could get smaller. And while the world shifts its attentions to new refugees, the people here are still waiting. They’re hoping for peace in Somalia so they can go back to their country.
School is of course another major part of life here. Here's Muzamil interviewing his friend, very quickly.
Muzamil Mohamed: Did you learn any school.
Friend: Yes, I learned.
Muzamil Mohamed: Which school did you learn?
Friend: Iftin primary school.
Muzamil Mohamed: Which class are you?
Friend: I am in class here.
Muzamil Mohamed: Do you want to be the best boy?
Friend: Yes, I want to be.
Muzamil Mohamed: Which number did you want?
Friend: I want to be number one.
Bianca Giaever: He says he wants to be number one in his class. Muzamil and his friends spend a lot of time studying.
Muzamil Mohamed: Dear brothers and sisters give me your full attention and listen to me…
Bianca Giaever: For a lot of families in Dadaab, the education is a major reason to stick around. The schools are free, and it’s much safer to study here than in Somalia. And I have to say, I was so impressed by how much the kids here studied. Here’s one of Muzamil’s friends, Abdirahman, being quizzed on capitals. He’s talking to my co-reporter Roopa Gogineni.
Roopa Gogineni: Do you know the capital city of South Africa?
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Pretoria.
Roopa Gogineni: Good job. Capital city of Angola?
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Angola… Luanda.
Roopa Gogineni: Egypt.
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Cairo.
Roopa Gogineni: Senegal.
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Senegal… Dakar.
Roopa Gogineni: Nigeria.
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Abuja.
Roopa Gogineni: Canada.
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Canada! I only know Africa.
Roopa Gogineni: Ok.
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Which is the capital city of America?
Roopa Gogineni: Washington D.C.
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Washington D.C.C. It’s quite difficult.
Roopa Gogineni: It’s difficult to say.
Abdirahman Abdikarim Khamis: Yes
Bianca Giaever: A lot of kids wanted to know about what comes after high school for students in Dadaab, what’s next?
Kid: Do you have hope for a better future?
Kid: Um, if you're a kid, then what do you wanna do when you grow up?
Kid: Do you consider it your home?
Bianca Giaever: Muzamil is only 200 miles away from where he was born… from Dadaab that’s a two-day bus ride, about the same distance from Boston to New York. And since he arrived in Dadaab….
Muzamil Mohamed: I have never left Dadaab.
Bianca Giaever: He has never left, never seen beyond these dirt roads and makeshift stores and hand-painted signs and donkey taxis. This is his world.
But he knows that Dadaab is a temporary place. I passed on this question to him, from a kid:
Kid: What is the dreamland you want to go? Where do you want to go?
Bianca Giaever: Here’s Muzamil:
Muzamil Mohamed: I want to go back to my motherland.
Bianca Giaever: Why?
Muzamil Mohamed: Because Somalia is my motherland, if I dislike my motherland that’s not good.
Bianca Giaever: I want to go back to my motherland. Because Somalia is my motherland. And if I dislike my motherland, that’s not good.
Muzamil Mohamed: The advantage that we are in here is to learn something good. If I finish this study I want to go to my motherland.
Bianca Giaever: The advantage here is to learn something good, he said. If I finish my studies I want to go back to my motherland. Muzamil’s dream is to become a teacher, back in Somalia and to bring his education back to his people.
Returning to Somalia is one of a few possible futures for kids here. Every year a small number of people in Dadaab are chosen for resettlement in other countries and that means their lives could go any direction. The week we were visiting Dadaab, this happened:
Announcers: Ilhan Omar arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia. She spent some of her childhood in a refugee camp but now she is a U.S. Congresswoman. Let’s find out more.
Bianca Giaever: Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee, was elected as a Congresswoman in Minnesota. She spent part of her childhood in a different refugee camp in Kenya. The elections happened while we were in Dadaab. Here’s a shopkeeper we talked to. He said people were excited.
Abdi Noor Ali: They are happy about someone who is Somali who is a refugee and then become somebody famous.
But these days, fewer Somali refugees are being allowed into the United States. And on top of that the Kenyan government has been threatening to close Dadaab. So Muzamil’s future is uncertain.
At the end of the day when the sun is finally setting in Dadaab, the air becomes cooler and the sky is covered in stars. I wasn’t allowed to stay in the camp at night for security reasons, so I gave Muzamil a recorder so he could record the night time for me.
Muzamil Mohamed: This is sounds in Dadaab where I live.
Bianca Giaever: When I got the recorder back, I opened up the files, and I heard this sound…
It was the sound of frogs. It sounded just like the frogs I had heard on summer nights when I was a kid. At first, I was confused. I didn’t think there were frogs in Dadaab. It was so dry there. But I found outthere’s a water tap next to Muzamil’s house, with a pool of water around it, where frogs live.
Muzamil listens to the frogs while he’s falling asleep, he loves the sound. He made a special trip to the water tap with his dad to record the frogs for us.
Wherever Muzamil ends up, I hope he’ll still come across the sound of frogs from time to time. And when he does, he’ll remember the feeling of being 12 years old, on a warm evening, growing up in Dadaab.
Muzamil Mohamed: Goodbye to everyone and thank you for listening
Bianca Giaever: How do you think this radio story will be received?
Muzamil Mohamed: It’s good.