In a Kenyan refugee camp, Omar sparks dreams

The Buffalo News - - CONTINUED FROM THE COVER - By Ab­dul­lahi Mire and Max Bearak WASH­ING­TON POST

DADAAB, Kenya - So­ma­lia’s three decades of nearly non­stop con­flict, more than a mil­lion refugees have made their way into neigh­bor­ing Kenya. For four years as a child, Rep. Il­han Omar, D-Minn., was one of them.

For a long time, Dadaab - pop­u­lated mostly by So­ma­lis - was the largest refugee camp in the world. To­day it is smaller but still home to a quar­ter of a mil­lion peo­ple. On In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day on Fri­day, for some of Dadaab’s young women, Omar is on their minds.

Her jour­ney and achieve­ment is a pow­er­ful an­ti­dote to the de­spair of the camp, es­pe­cially in the era of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s so-called “refugee ban,” which makes the re­set­tle­ment Omar’s fam­ily ben­e­fited from seem so dis­tant for peo­ple here. Dis­tant, too, is the con­tro­versy that has swirled around Omar in re­cent weeks, in which she has been rep­ri­manded by those within and out­side her party for re­marks per­ceived to be anti-Semitic.

“In this part of the world we love her,” said Nyamouch Hoth, a 21-yearold South Su­danese wo­man. Hoth sat in an empty class­room with a friend, seek­ing shade from the 100-plus de­gree heat. On a piece of white printer pa­per, she sketched a por­trait of Omar.

Hoth has spent the last four years in Dadaab and is one of the small num­ber of non-So­ma­lis there. Her un­cle once spon­sored her to go to an art school in Kenya, but he was killed in South Su­dan’s civil war, and her money dried up. Her mother had de­cided to flee South Su­dan, and the two of them landed in Dadaab.

“I would like to meet Il­han in per­son one day,” said Hoth’s friend, Amina Yus­suf. “She is my role model.”

Yus­suf dreams about fol­low­ing Omar’s path but knows it’s likely out of reach for now, given the tight­en­ing re­stric­tions on re­set­tle­ment in the United States th­ese days. She doesn’t want to go back to So­ma­lia, even though the U.N. is of­fer­ing money for those who vol­un­tar­ily re­turn.

She be­lieves her fam­ily will force her to marry some­one against her will. In Dadaab at least, she can at­tend school and hang out with friends. Be­hind the walls of a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion’s com­pound, Yus­suf and her friends some­times get to play bas­ket­ball.

Life in the camp is monotonous though, and mak­ing ends meet has be­come tougher in re­cent years. Drops in aid fund­ing have led to in­creased food prices, and Kenyan au­thor­i­ties pe­ri­od­i­cally threaten to shut down the en­tire camp, mak­ing for a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence. Since mil­i­tants from the So­mali Is­lamist group al-Shabab at­tacked a ho­tel in Kenya’s cap­i­tal, Nairobi, in Jan­uary, ru­mors of a crack­down have put every­one on edge.

“I think Don­ald Trump hates us the same way he hates Il­han,” she said.

Mov­ing back to So­ma­lia is out of the ques­tion for her - “it’s a sui­cide mis­sion” - and if Dadaab is shut down, she said she’d seek out an­other refugee camp.

Amina Yus­suf voiced the ob­vi­ous: “This place is sti­fling.” Bul­lies at school were mak­ing it even worse. At least her friend Nyamouch was teach­ing her how to draw.

“I hope that Il­han can talk to Mzee Trump on our be­half,” she said, us­ing an hon­orific ti­tle used for older men.

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