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“Nobody wants to be living in camps, it’s a place you are forced to settle in when you have no options but to do so,” says One Young World Ambassador

December 23, 2023 at 1:11 pm

Deng Dak Malual

In the vast expanse of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where dreams seem to wither in the face of adversity, Deng Dak Malual’s story exemplifies resilience, education and the transformative potential within refugee communities.

Originally from South Sudan, Deng Dak has spent nearly 17 years in Kakuma, navigating the challenges of displacement faced by many refugees and forging a path toward empowerment for those who, despite accessing education, find themselves at a crossroads with limited opportunities.

“Since I’ve been in the camp, I’ve been seeing people go into education and reach higher education, but then they’d go into a period of blackout where they find that they have nothing else to do next,” shared Deng Dak.

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He added: “Even those who have been here for 20 or 30 years are still unsure what to do, so it is better that they are taught skills and given job opportunities so that they can be self-reliant, which will solve a lot of their problems that come with being a refugee living in camps.”

“Because truthfully, nobody wants to be living in camps, it’s a place you are forced to settle in when you have no options but to do so.”

Over the last three decades, Kenya has emerged as a crucial haven for numerous refugees, drawn by the country’s political stability. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) reports that Kenya currently hosts a refugee population exceeding half a million individuals, with 41 per cent of them finding refuge in the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

At the age of 13, Deng Dak found himself separated from his parents and thrust into the unfamiliar territory of the camp, seeking only little comfort within extended families. While the communal bonds provided a semblance of support, he noted that the daily struggles loomed large.

As minors, they attended school during the day, returning to empty homes with no one to fetch water or prepare meals. The absence of guardians to guide and motivate them left the eldest among them to assume that role.

“Despite having people to stay with, there were still difficulties because we had to do all the cooking and water fetching after school, and then it’ll be time to go to school again in the morning. Another main problem was sometimes not having someone to motivate you and teach you the right or wrong. It was up to whoever was the oldest out of the minors,” Deng Dak explained.

Moreover, the pervasive uncertainty of reuniting with parents and immediate family members lingered as a constant mental burden on the young refugees, casting shadows on the prospects of a fulfilling future.

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Yet, amidst these struggles, Deng Dak acknowledges the positive aspects of communal resilience, drawing strength from the collective pursuit of education and shared experiences.

“Sometimes you feel you have no future in this camp because it’ll be said that if you don’t even know where your parents are, who are you going to grow up and share your future with, there is nobody,” he expressed.

“But sometimes the pressure has positive sides. As long as there are kids going to school, others are motivated to go with them. And with time, you play with them, stay close to them until high school is completed. And then refugees focus on finding the whereabouts of their parents, but unfortunately, many don’t have that luck of locating them. It’s hard and sad to see your friends never finding out the whereabouts of their parents, especially when you found yours. Many drop out of school due to that pressure.”

His own reunion with his parents stands as a rare victory in a landscape where the whereabouts of loved ones often remain unknown, underscoring the harsh realities faced by refugees in their pursuit of stability and connection.

The turning point arrived in 2016, after completing his higher education, when Deng Dak delved into humanitarian organisations, specialising in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. His journey continued as he became an ambassador for One Young World, a global community of over 17,000 young leaders whose work has positively impacted 35.8 million people worldwide.

He has since been engaging in initiatives to empower refugees, leading to his role as a team leader at StepUp.One, an initiative with an ambitious goal – to reskill and employ a million refugees by 2030.

Deng Dak explained the aspiration to create alternatives for refugees beyond dependency on charities, envisioning a future where they can actively shape their destinies.

He said: “Ultimately, we’re trying to create another option for refugees besides going through the initial resettlement process by the United Nations, which is currently being accessed by less than five per cent of refugees. We’re also trying to create ways for people in the camp to gain instead of just waiting for charities, waiting for food, waiting for donations. We show them they can work things out themselves to be stable.”

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“The jobs we specialise in are to help international companies develop their products, also do sales, marketing and branding for them, even blogging and social media.” He emphasised how remote work, facilitated by advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, opens doors for refugees to participate in the global job market.

Additionally, as the Kakuma Refugee Camp anticipates an overwhelming influx of people fleeing their homes in Sudan, Deng Dak assures that the initiative remains open and ready to assist newcomers.

Sudan has been mired by fighting between the army, led by General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, head of the ruling Sovereign Council, and the Rapid Support Forces. About seven million in Sudan have been displaced within the country or fled in search of security in neighbouring countries.

“We are always open to help refugees arriving in Kakuma Refugee Camp. As long as they have the mindset and the will, they can change their life. We will give them our best and help them learn,” he explained.

Deng Dak concludes by highlighting the dreams of refugee youth – dreams that extend beyond survival to making meaningful contributions to global peace. He challenges the world to recognise the untapped potential within refugee populations, urging the global community to listen, learn and provide platforms for refugees to share their invaluable perspectives.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.