So it turns out the refugees down the street are refugees and they do sleep there on the side of the road. Call me naïve, but it wasn’t always obvious to me (and nobody has explained any of this to me). I’ve seen bunches of them come and go pretty regularly since I moved to this part of Nairobi a year ago—a handful cooking dinner here, a few in sleeping bags there, but never for more than a couple days at a time. The latest bunch has got to be at least twenty people, though, and they’ve been there for at least a month now.
In the last couple of days I’ve accidentally talked to a few of them… I’m just so used to bumbling along Church Road talking to everyone that it was bound to happen eventually. The first guy was from Burundi, and the second guy was from Congo. This would definitely explain why they speak Swahili. And whattaya know, I speak Swahili! Enough, at least, to figure out what’s going on.
The Congolese guy told me that his dad, mom, sister, and brother were all killed in Kinshasa (which is really far away from Kenya, by the way, clear on the other side of Africa!). He came to Kenya on a bus through Uganda, with only the clothes on his back. Him and all the other refugees sleep in the street and cook in the street (even when it rains). The other day we stood talking next to their small camp and I saw rats rummaging through their stuff. By “stuff” I mean, like, a few blankets, pots, and a suitcase or two. It’s hard to believe they’re NOT refugees, because who would choose to live like that if they had another option?
It doesn’t appear as if there is any light at the end of the tunnel either… one of them showed me his official refugee document (of sorts) from the UNHCR. It had his picture, name, etc, and at the bottom it said “Appointment date: January 17, 2011.” Today I asked him, “Utafanya nini mpaka hio appointment?” (what will you do until that appointment?). “Nitakaa tu hapa. Sina kazi, sina pesa” (I’ll just stay here. I don’t have any work or money). Sorry, dude, I don’t have any work for you either…
Every interaction I’ve had with them has been nice. Last week I was touched by a group of small kids who seemed to be in awe as I walked by. They didn’t yell “mzungu” or “give me money” like I expected, so I asked them, “Sasa?” (what’s up?). I never got an answer, but I could hear them debating what I had said amongst themselves. Another time a lady joked with me, “Kiswahili pole pole” (Kiswahili slowly but surely).
On a serious note, though, I have no idea how to help these guys. They come to this specific spot because we have lots of NGOs around here. Within one block of my house there is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the United Nations Mission for Somalia. I’ve given them a few hundred shillings ($2–3) over the past week but it’s not much… what else can you do?