Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bold Refugee newspaper-KANERE close shop



I recently decided to fly to the Kakuma refugee camp to do a story for The Star, Kenya’s newest independent daily. The overcrowded camp is in Turkana, about 290kms northwest of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. I have been to several refugee camps in the Great Lakes region. But to be honest, I have never seen resilient refugees as the ones at Kakuma refugee camp.
I have been here several times, highlighting the plight of the refugees. But my goal this time round is to meet some refugee journalists whom I learnt operate from this particular camp. I am eager to learn how these journalists run a publication, with nothing to call a tangible newsroom like the one I am used to in Nairobi.
Here, they have turned the sufferings of a refugee camp into a powerful reported narrative.

In a 30 page newsletter, these journalists tell the stories of the challenges at the camp. They have established a monthly system of news reporting, pooling their skills for the investigation and reporting on events around the camp.
KANERE is the name they have given their monthly newsletter.

I met journalist Atem Deng, a 27 year old Sudanese from the Dinka ethnic group. From afar, Deng is just another young man in this refugee camp. But from the looks of how he is dressed - clean blue formal shirt and black official trousers-he gives me a picture of an educated man.

His small manyatta or thatch shelter does not, however, speak much of him. “I was pursuing a Diploma in Community health. But one day, I got back from my normal day in school only to find my home raided and my parents killed, I had to run,” Deng recalls. He explains that he had to walk for months coming to Kenya. He has been at the Kakuma Refugee camp since 2005.

He was introduced to the KANERE family –his education was an asset. The group takes pride in its diverse background – made up of refugees from all over the region –which helps keep the stories varied and balanced.
“I had not written anything before for publication. But my friend taught me of how to be a journalist. I accompanied him to the field to gather news,” he explains. But the friend soon left to the US through a resettlement programme. Deng was left to fill the shoe of the gone friend, who was also from Sudan.
He explains that the best brains of the newsletter will always be picked to be resettled in third countries hence negatively affecting the publication in terms of manpower.
After my conversation with Deng, he refers me to25 year old Ajirah Abdirahman from Somalia. She has been pursuing adult education at one of the Kakuma schools. She is dressed in a maroon burqa and a black buibui. With her she is carrying a paper bag with books. Talking to her, I realize she is struggling with English. But this is a young woman who has decided to beat all odds facing a Somali woman to pursue a career and possibly a better life.

Ajirah left her war torn country after it was raided by militias. She came to one of the biggest refugee camps in the world, Daadab Camp, in Kenya. She was among the first Somali refugees to be transferred to Kakuma after Daadab became overcrowded.
“Once I got here, I took the opportunity to learn some English and enrolled in the adult education classes,” she says. Her teacher then mentioned about KANERE as there was no Somali writer on their staff. She decided this would be her opportunity to put what she has learnt to practice and so she took up the challenge as a Somali writer for KANERE.
Ajirah explains that the lack of resources inhibited the groups from getting the best stories. “When you want a good story, you have to understand the background of it but we didn’t have that option,” she says.

In addition to the lack of training, the team copes with only one camera was available along with one “temperamental” computer with a lousy internet connection, Deng added. After struggling with limited resources and training the KANERE voluntary team would seek UNHCR’s help to print the publication.
However, the publication today is no more.
“The last publication of the paper was last year in December, the sponsors did not give tangible reason as to why they cannot support us anymore but I get the feeling it’s from highlighting the real issues in the camp,” Deng explains to me. The newspaper grew into a source of hope for many of the journalists involved, through the passion of the writers and the possibility that their work could create real change and reach a global community of humanitarians.
“The first few times we did real stories of real people, there was no problem with the humanitarian organizations, but later they decided to monitor our stories and they would only publish the ones that would give them mileage,” says Deng. “We are beggars here, we depend on the food rations from the organization, once you portray them badly then you could kiss the rations --or at least better treatment goodbye, this caused most writers to be careful on what to write about,” he adds.
According to the UNHCR officials the paper stopped because of the unprofessionalism of writers and some of the writers being repatriated to other countries or transferred to other refugee camps.
”Most of the writers are not professional journalists, every time we have to repatriated refuges to other places and most of the Kanere writers have left and we are also working on ways where Kanere would be recognized by the Kenyan Government,” said Emmanuel Nyabera UNHCR spokesperson.
But this unusual but fascinating venture of refugees-turned-journalists, confronting issues they face everyday in Kenyas wilderness, did not live to see many days as the paper closed down. Ajirah and the rest of the crew still investigate cases in hopes of reviving the publication one day. On top of the many problems faced by the refugees such as lack of food and health risks, they now face being denied the right of speech.
UNHCR however refutes the claim and KANERE was shut down for lack of funds and not because of the threat that the KANERE posed.

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