Hope Amid Despair—An Assembly in a Refugee Camp
KAKUMA refugee camp is situated in the northern part of Kenya, close to the Sudan border. It is home to over 86,000 people. The area is arid, with daytime temperatures reaching 120°F [50°C]. Violence between the displaced communities is common. For many, the camp is a place of despair. Others, however, have hope.
Among the refugees are a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are zealously declaring the Kingdom good news. They are part of a small congregation in Lodwar, 75 miles [120 km] to the south. The next congregation is an eight-hour drive away.
Since the refugees cannot freely travel out of the camp, many are not able to attend the assemblies and conventions held by Jehovah’s Witnesses. For this reason, arrangements were made to hold a special assembly day inside the camp.
To support the assembly, 15 Witnesses in the town of Eldoret, 300 miles [480 km] south of the camp, volunteered to make the arduous journey to the arid north, along with a Bible student who offered the use of his minibus and driver. Their heartfelt desire was to encourage and strengthen their brothers.
The journey started on a cold early morning in the Kenyan western highlands. The bumpy road climbed through farmland and forests before descending into the heat of desert scrub. Flocks of goats and camels grazed on the inhospitable land. Tribesmen walked along in traditional clothes, many carrying clubs, bows, and arrows. After traveling for 11 hours, the Witnesses reached Lodwar, a hot and dusty community of nearly 20,000 people. Warmly greeted by their Witness hosts, the travelers went to get some rest so that they would be ready for a full weekend of activity.
The next morning, the visitors went to see some of the area’s sights. Lake Turkana, Kenya’s largest, was a must. Surrounded by miles and miles of desert bush, it is home to the world’s largest crocodile population. The alkaline waters help support the few people who live along its shore. The evening was enjoyably spent attending the Theocratic Ministry School and Service Meeting with the local congregation. They have a beautiful Kingdom Hall, built in 2003 through the Witnesses’ building program for countries with limited resources.
The Special Assembly Day
Sunday was set aside for the special assembly day. The Lodwar Congregation and the visiting brothers had been granted permission to enter the camp by 8:00 a.m., so the Witnesses were eager to get an early start. The road wound its way through the barren landscape toward the Sudan border. Jagged mountains towered above the road. The vista opened up at Kakuma village. It had been raining, and the dirt road into the camp was flooded in places. Most homes were mud brick with roofs made of tin or tarpaulin. Groups of Ethiopians, Somali, Sudanese, and others each live in their own areas. The travelers were enthusiastically greeted by the refugees.
The assembly was held in a training center. Drawings on the walls spoke of the horrors of refugee life, but the spirit in the hall that day was one of hope. Every talk was given in English and Swahili. Some speakers fluent in both languages even interpreted for themselves. A refugee brother from Sudan gave the opening talk, “Examining Our Figurative Heart.” Other parts were handled by visiting elders.
A special highlight of every assembly is the baptism. At the conclusion of the baptism discourse, all eyes were on the one candidate as he rose. Gilbert had fled with his father from their native land during the genocide of 1994. At first, they had hoped to find safety in Burundi, but they soon realized that they were still in danger. Gilbert fled to Zaire, then to Tanzania—at times hiding in the forest—and finally to Kenya. Many eyes were filled with tears as the speaker welcomed him as a brother in the congregation. Standing before the small assembly of 95 people, Gilbert answered with a clear, confident “Ndiyo!”—Swahili for “Yes!”—to the two questions put to him by the speaker. He and some other brothers had excavated a small pool by hand and had lined it with the tarpaulin that once covered his own shelter in the camp. Demonstrating his eagerness to be baptized, that very morning he had filled the pool with water, bucket by bucket, all by himself!
One of the highlights of the afternoon session was the relating of experiences about the unique situation of the refugee Witnesses. One brother explained how he approached a man resting under a tree.
“Tell me, is it safe all the time to sit under a tree?”
“Yes,” the man replied. Then he added, “But no, not at night.”
The brother read to him Micah 4:3, 4: “They will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble.” “You see,” he explained, “in God’s new world, it will be safe all the time.” The man accepted a Bible study aid.
One sister who traveled to Kakuma had recently been bereaved of three close family members. Commenting on the brothers in the camp, she said: “This is a place with so much difficulty; yet, they have kept their faith strong. They live in an unhappy place, but they are happily serving Jehovah. They are at peace with God. I was encouraged to keep peace and serve Jehovah. I have nothing to complain about!”
All too soon the assembly day came to an end. In the concluding talk, the speaker pointed out that representatives from eight different countries were present. One of the Witness refugees observed that this assembly was proof of the unity and love among Jehovah’s Witnesses in a divided world. Theirs is a true Christian brotherhood.—John 13:35.
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THE LOST BOYS OF SUDAN
Since the beginning of the civil war in Sudan in 1983, five million people have been driven from their homes. Among them were some 26,000 children, separated from their families. Thousands of them fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia, where they remained for about three years. Forced to move again, they trekked for a year back through Sudan to northern Kenya, ravaged by soldiers, bandits, diseases, and wild animals. Only half the children survived these arduous journeys, eventually becoming the nucleus of the Kakuma camp. To relief agencies, they have come to be known as the lost boys of Sudan.
The Kakuma refugee camp is now a multinational home for refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and other countries. On arrival at the camp, a refugee is given some basic material for building a home and a tarpaulin for roofing. Twice a month, each refugee is given about 13 pounds [6 kg] of flour, 2 pounds [1 kg] of beans, and some oil and salt. Many refugees trade some of their allotment to obtain other provisions.
Some of these lost boys have been reunited with their families or resettled in other countries. But according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, “thousands more have remained in the dusty, fly-ridden refugee camp at Kakuma, where they have had to scrape for food and struggle for education.”
Courtesy Refugees International
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Living conditions in the camp are challenging
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Water is rationed in Kakuma camp
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Kenyan Witnesses make the arduous trip north to encourage their brothers
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A missionary interpreting a talk given by a local special pioneer
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Rationing water and Kakuma Refugee Camp: Courtesy Refugees International