Students in the FilmAid program. Traces

Good News from Dabaab

The Dadaab refugee camp is the world’s largest, and at its center there is a black hole: the future. Even so, Maria Leitao works here to educate young people to be film directors. Here, where “human hope is non existent,” something is happening.
Davide Perillo

“When I first arrived, I couldn’t sleep for days, because they filled me with questions and I had no prepared answer for them. I tossed and turned at night, asking myself, ‘What is hope for them? And for me?’” “They” are the four hundred thousand refugees of Dadaab, Kenya, packed into the largest refugee camp in the world, an hour by car from the Somalia border. Maria Leitão, who goes by Bebé, 49 years old, Portuguese, arrived here just over a year ago. She works for Film Aid, an American NGO. Having lived in East Timor and Haiti, she knew the pain and the greatness of places where need is all encompassing. But she was not prepared to find in the desert a city suspended in time, with no roots and no tomorrow.

There are lines of tents and shacks, setup since 1990 by the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR: sand, heat, a fence surrounding the camp. “They come from all over Africa: Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Ethiopia, all countries with political problems or natural catastrophes.” There are the utterly indigent and Latin scholars; criminal gang members and mothers of families. “There are twenty-year-olds who were born there and others who have just entered.” But for everyone today, the prospects are the same: a very long stay, perhaps forever, because now no one is allowed to leave the camps. Since the humanitarian trouble has been exacerbated by the risk of terrorism, from the Somalian Al-Shabaab and massacres like that in the University of Garissa, just sixty-two miles west of the camp, Kenya has put the lockdown not only on Dadaab but also on Kukum, the other refugee camp near Sudan, with 180,000 people and the same black hole: the future.

Until last autumn, some refugees were permitted to enter Kenya, and some had found work and started families. Then the government said, “Everybody back,” and suddenly these people had to return to the shacks of the refugee camp. At least twenty thousand, it is said. But the numbers here always bounce around, like the number of those sent back home to Somalia after the 2013 accord, which was said to be between eighty and one hundred thousand– but nobody believes it. About seventy NGOs are working in the camp, bringing assistance, food and education. Film Aid assists with unusual instruments: videos, above all, and with magazines. “We use them to inform, to educate, or simply to entertain,” recounts Bebé from her office in Nairobi. There are videos that teach people how to wash food, how to treat certain illnesses, or how to avoid violence. The films are seen in groups and then discussed, or watched on a big screen set up on a pickup truck in the open areas where spectators mix with those who thought up and filmed the video, that is, other refugees. In fact, the uniqueness of FilmAid is the fact that the refugees themselves make the videos. FilmAid’s primary work is to teach journalism and video production. “We give lessons in direction, sound, and lighting,” says Bebé. “The kids learn storytelling and how to make documentaries.” They even produce a magazine, The Refugee. “Between the two camps we give work to about a hundred people. It’s a good thing. They feel valued, earn a small wage, and have a job to do eight hours a day.” They learn trades that they would like to do away from the camps, were they allowed.

This is also the dream of Smart, who we see in an autobiographical video. “Being a refugee was not my choice, but neither is it an excuse not to reach some goal in life.” Such as Farida, who would like to become a director. And Bithu, Abdirashid, and Ojully: “The conversations with them always wear me out. ‘I’d like to go to Hollywood,’ ‘I want to be a journalist.’ But what prospect do they have? They are in the prime of life: being 20 here is like being 35 in Europe. And you can’t give false answers–not to them, and not to yourself. You can say, ‘Cheer up, the future will be better,’ but you know it isn’t true unless a miracle happens. Here, human hope is nonexistent. I lost sleep over it in the beginning.” And then? “I thought of the prisoners in Padua, in Italy. For them, the only chance is if hope is present now, in a human relationship that makes every present thing a Presence, that can encompass everything. The one answer is Christianity. But you can’t say this, so quickly. You can’t jump to the conclusion right away. You have to go deep down into the Christian words and see them happen.”

Bodyguards and the Heart
She sees them continually, in small but real facts, in relationships that show “a horizon that wasn’t there before, and both you and the other person recognize it.” For example? Bebé reflects a moment. “Look, in certain situations human malice worsens,” she sighs. “In the camps there are people who ask sexual favors of girls in exchange for a job. I had to fight to get rid of them. But in this way I met Afmahani, a Muslim girl. She told me about it, and I said I would do everything in my power so she could live with dignity. She asked, ‘Why? Here it’s the law of the jungle.’ I answered, ‘Because you are precious. Infinite.’” Bebé saw the Christian words happen in a conversation with Geffe a few days ago. “‘Do you have a husband? Children? No? Why don’t you get married?’ I answered, ‘because God has given me so much and I am so happy that I want to give Him everything.’He looked at me and said, ‘So then, you’re Catholic. Only a Catholic could say this.’” Or again, “One day I went into the classroom. I am not a teacher; I work in the back office, make the ‘machine’ work. But that day they were talking about resumes and I was struck. The teacher said, ‘Write your personal information, the languages you speak...’ But I permitted myself to interrupt, and said, ‘Kids, a person looking to hire someone wants a special person. Don’t put things that say little, like favorite sport: soccer, that doesn’t tell me anything. Millions of people play soccer. But you, instead, who are you?’ Someone raised a hand, timidly. ‘I’ve learned to play the music of the Turkana, a tribe here.’ ‘Good, this tells me about you!’ Another said, ‘I studied journalism.’ ‘Perfect: this tells me you may be closed up in here, but you’re not idle. Kids, look, you are unique. Each of you is. And I want to know this.’ ”This led to an unexpected conversation “about the mystery of life, not just about resumes.”

Who knows where those resumes will end up? “It seems absurd to teach a trade to those who will never be able to do it outside here. But at least a video about child birth can teach women that a hospital is not just a place where you go to die. Or another video on food teaches people to wash things before eating them.” Simple things, but in the midst of the desert they can make the difference between health and disease, life and death, or change your idea of yourself: “A few days ago, a woman told me, ‘Thanks to you I have understood that women have rights.’” Lightning flashes in an increasingly dark sky. The Dadaab camp has become the special terrain of the Al-Shabaab terrorists: they circulate weapons, recruit, even train among the shacks. Many want to close the camp or move it to Somalia. “If the government did so, Kenya would be even more in the crosshairs,” says Bebé. She can only enter the camp with bodyguards. “I am a white Christian woman who works for an American NGO. The risk is too great.” But is there talk about terrorism in Dadaab? “No, silence.” And yet many NGOs are closing their offices, and Nairobi is making it more difficult for visas. “Three months ago it seemed that they were going to revoke my visa, and I thought, here we go again, I have to leave. I was anguished. Then, it only took a moment in which I recognized Jesus present, and I could breathe freely again. I told myself, “You’re an idiot. You were expecting a visa and instead you should be expecting Him.” It has always been this way, when she worked at a Lisbon television station after graduating from university, then after eight years, in a publishing house, then a law office, then with the opportunity in East Timor, in a hospital that was tasked with opening a maternity ward (“John Paul II had asked the Portuguese Church to do it”), and invHaiti, after the earthquake (“I was supposed to stay a few months and I ended up there for two and a half years”), in Mozambique, and now with FilmAid. Always with her heart restless, never settled.

One day, at lunch with some refugees, Bebé asked what they most missed. “The answer surprised me. Everyone, absolutely everyone, said, ‘A home of my own.’ Many come from devastated places, with terrible poverty and shacks made of mud. In comparison, they are better off here, and yet they miss a home. I wondered, what is a home, then? The walls, or the bonds, the relationships, your identity? For me, what is it?”

Always in Company
Bebé is a member of Memores Domini. She lives alone in Nairobi, not in a “house.” “In the evening there’s nobody to ask me how I am, or how my day went.” Almost all the members of the CL community live on the other side of the city. “I rarely see them. I can’t move on my own because it’s dangerous, and they don’t have cars.”The solitude is great. “But the presence of Jesus is greater. A home is not the walls, it is the relationship with Him,” to be lived in the circumstances, just as they are. “I understood there that Christ is my identity, my home. Since He is the One who makes me, I am always in company. It was very moving for me to realize this.” She is planning another trip to Kukuma, where she spends seven to ten days a month. It is slightly safer than Dadaab, but dangerous nonetheless. Is she afraid? “Certainly, at times. Previously, I never would have run these risks. If you do it, it is because you are more certain of a relationship, and that relationship is your hope.”