I was reading the newspaper one morning in August, distressed by the reports from Gaza, Syria and Iraq. Palestinians had been told to leave their homes — more deadly Israeli strikes were on the way. Some 30,000 Yazidis, an Iraqi religious minority, had fled to the mountains to escape the genocidal brutality of ISIS. There were pictures of scared children, and more photos of children desperately fleeing violence in South America, warehoused along the U.S.-Mexican border while government leaders weighed humanitarian sensitivities against practical realities and political self-interest.
Then, in a story about the savagery in Iraq: “Since the crisis began early last month, an estimated 850,000 Iraqis have fled the ongoing violence. According to the United Nations, 1.2 million people in Iraq have been displaced this year.” Where, I thought, are they going?
Where is it safe? What country has opened its borders to help? And what do they do when they get there?
News reports from around the globe often fail to penetrate the sprint of my days; sometimes they land a blow. So did a visit last spring with Ed Grode ’71M.A. The retired educator had heard we were doing a story on Rahul Oka, a Notre Dame anthropologist who has been studying the ways and means of Kakuma Refugee Camp for years. Kakuma was established in northwest Kenya in 1991 to extend a safety net for those fleeing strife in Sudan, providing refuge to maybe 45,000 people.
Today its population approaches 200,000 — those since driven by warfare or starvation from Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, the Congo and Somalia. The place is remote and desert-dry; water is dismally scarce. Communicable diseases thrive; malnutrition is commonplace. Ed has made several trips to Kakuma since 2003; he gave me a video he put together with a film crew living there.
Even though the images were reminiscent of an old home movie, the place and the people came through. Kakuma became real for me, penetrated the sprint of my days. There were men getting haircuts, girls playing basketball, boys competing with goats for food scraps at the garbage dump. There were kids dancing like an American boy band and women carrying firewood on their heads and a man deep in a hole dug into the desert, lifting a cup of sandy water to his grinning mouth.
While many elements are indeed grim, this story rests on help and hope and the human spirit.
In addition to the text and photos found here in print, we’ve tried to bring Rahul and Ed and the people of Kakuma closer to you — through several videos available at our website. Additional multimedia productions tied to this issue will take you into the cockpit of a U.S. Navy Blue Angel and into the workshop of an artisan casting bells.
More than anything else, I think, the purpose of many stories we tell in this magazine is to make people real, so that we can feel their lives, too, and can know their humanity and better understand our own humanity through them. It could be a family dealing with a mother’s ALS or a wife’s cognitive disturbances or people halfway around the world, strangers we’ll never meet whose lives just might impact our own, if we let them.
— Kerry Temple ’74