18 April 2019

Spoken: A Kakuma Refugee Tells Her Story

“I thought it was a dream.” This is how Nyamad’s spoken-word poetry piece began. Standing in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, the 22-year-old adorned an incongruent white t-shirt with “Los Angeles” printed in small black lettering on the front. Her eyes were closed for the duration of her poetry as she felt each moment of her rhyme. She often held her hands flat and extended from her body as if to create a physical point of conduction for her innermost feelings.

What she expressed included pain and longing, but also hope. Her words reflected warfare and political turmoil from her homeland of South Sudan, a country that became formally independent in 2011 and the place she left when she was only three years old. She recounted that fateful and harrowing experience, “My dad came home that night and told us that we need to pack our things and leave because things are not good. We didn’t get time to say goodbye to all our friends and relatives.”

At the time, Nyamad’s father was working as a doctor at one of the military barracks. He went against protocol and gave medicine to and treated the wounds of a captured rebel who was left in a prison cell to die. Her father was caught and his acts of compassion were reported to his commander. Knowing that he would soon be persecuted for his deeds, Nyamad explained, “He had to run for his life.” This meant the rest of her family had to run, too.

With little time to waste, Nyamad and her family fled before hearing her father’s explanation. Nyamad admits now that she was too young to process it anyway, even if he had been able to tell her. After leaving their home with a few belongings, they joined a group of civilians and walked several miles before reaching a bordering country where they were received by UN staff. Soon after, they took a flight to the town of Lokichoggio, Kenya. Two weeks later, they were taken to the Kakuma camp where Nyamad has been ever since.

She recalled the difficulties of those early days, particularly the landscape’s harsh elements, “We arrived at the camp in the afternoon in a lorry. It was so hot and dusty that it was hard to cook,” she recounted. “We would go a day without breakfast and lunch because the windstorm couldn’t allow us to cook or eat anything. Vehicles moved around with headlights on during the day to avoid accidents.”

Nyamad credits Kakuma for making her who she is today- a self-proclaimed fighter with a strong belief in humanity. She has been inspired by many people in Kakuma over the years and although her experiences in the camp have varied, she has been able to maintain a somewhat regular routine. “My typical day starts at 5:30 am. I pick a lamp and read for two hours. After that I prepare myself for work. I come back from work at 4pm and change for my volleyball practice, which lasts an hour, and come back home to prepare supper.”

These experiences as a refugee inform Nyamd’s writing and spoken-word poetry. Although she has been writing for quite some time, performing her poetry for larger audiences is relatively new. “It first started when I joined a child right club in 2004. My patrons would write poems and I would recite them. With time, I perfected the art of memorizing and performing on stages and at events like World Refugee Day, African Child Day, etc. I started writing my own at the age of 15.”

Perhaps it was growing up in a close and sizeable family that forced Nyamad to express herself. “Being the only daughter among four brothers and three cousins, I had to fight and create my own space. I always had to shout for someone to hear my voice. I had to stay visible each and every time and demand for my right whenever I felt like they were violating them,” she explained.

Nyamad hopes to help other female refugees and girls find their voice, too. She is currently working on a poetry project that aims to empower refugee women. “It will be done probably by June,” she told us. Nyamad sees her younger self in refugee girls and this inspires her to advocate on their behalf. “I believe in education transforming societies. If refugee girls can access free and quality education, I have a greater hope that they would not only change their lives but would also contribute to making this world a better place for all.”

One of the deeper emotions revealed in her spoken-word poetry is her struggle for a more permanent identity. “I have a home everywhere, but I belong nowhere because I am a refugee.” This is how her spoken word piece ends, but perhaps it also represents a fresh beginning for this artistic and promising young woman. More than anything, she wants other refugees to know, “Your dreams are valid.”

When asked where she would want to live if she could live anywhere in the world, she replied, “Home,” referring to South Sudan, the country she fled nineteen years ago. “There is no place like home and it will always be home because that is where I belong.” Then, unprompted, she added, “My second choice will be Kenya. She has been so kind and generous to me.”

 

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