Farah Eck: I Know A Refugee

Farah Eck shares her narrative with MALA in recognition of World Refugee Day. She is an International Development & Stakeholder Engagement Professional. Through her story, she explains how her own personal experience as a refugee has sparked an empathy for activism. Her full story can be read here.


In honor of World Refugee Day, I feel compelled to share that I know a refugee.

Not the type of “knowing” that comes with watching faces and flitting interviews and sound bites on 24-hour news channels.  I know a young man, a person with aspirations, faults, insecurities, and talents.  I know a leader who is a voracious reader, innovative thinker, architect of change, and who has a witty sense of humor.

Let’s call him Noah.  Noah, originally from Burundi, is a graduate of the leadership program at which I work in Nairobi, Kenya.  For more than six years, Noah has called Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya his place of residence.  Kakuma Camp has an estimated 180,000 refugees who come from more than 20 countries.  Because of the sheer number of refugees, diverse cultures and nationalities, and the severe issue of overcrowding, conflicts have become more frequent.  Life has not been about simply relocating to a foreign land.  Life for the past six years has been a series of constant reminders that Noah is a man without a country, without credentials to work, and without a firm knowledge about what the next day will bring.

When I asked Noah to share what he thought people should know about refugees, he answered with a question he is often asked by others.  “What did you do that made you flee your home country?”

Note that it is what did you do, and not what happened, not who did this to you, not how did the situation force you to evacuate your previous life?  This is the difference between knowing and not knowing a refugee.  Noah did not do anything that made him forcibly leave Burundi.  In fact, it’s because Noah didn’t do anything that he was forced to go.

At the time, Burundi experienced great turmoil under the ruling party, which was said to be radicalizing youth to serve in a militia to ensure support of the ruling party.  There were significant ethnic undertones as well in terms of who was “for” the party and who was “against” current leadership.  While Noah was spending his days studying and trying to advance his goals of becoming an entrepreneur, other youth were being drawn into a world of divisive hatred and violence.

Noah was approached by some of his former friends who had been lured into the militia, and who asked him to join them in the movement.  Noah responded that he could not participate in a movement that wanted to kill someone because of his opinions or ethnicity.  The youth responded by beating and threatening Noah. They also spread vicious rumors that Noah was part of the opposition, and these rumors spread throughout Noah’s small community like wildfire.  This continued for some time until a particularly brutal and violent day that Noah miraculously endured.

That was the day that Noah became a refugee not out of what he did, and not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Noah took a one-way bus ticket that he had to scrape to buy.  The only country at the time that would accept a Burundian refugee of his ethnic descent was Kenya.  And so Noah boarded the clunky bus that would slowly sputter him towards a new, unknown, and unchosen life in Kakuma Refugee Camp.

When talking with Noah, I empathize with his recollection of experiencing the unknown.  I understand the feeling of mentally trying to grasp hold of slippery walls in the darkness of your mind as you try to comprehend being evacuated.  I was evacuated twice in my life, and while my own story pales when compared to Noah’s experiences, I know what it’s like to not know.  To not know when you are going to see the rest of your family, to not know if you will be accepted for being where you are, to not know when you can sleep a full night without being afraid of leaving again.

I was evacuated at the onset of the Gulf War when my family and I lived in Dubai.

I was young, in fourth grade, and we were organized into a neat assembly line onto the three airplanes which took me to Springfield, Illinois.  For six months, I would walk to school pelted with questions about why my family got kicked out of my home and accusations of the many things that I could have done to deserve being taken away.  My mom would comfort me by telling me that no one understood because they did not know me, they only knew of my trip.

The second time I was forced to leave what I knew, I was in high school in Islamabad, Pakistan, and I was at the intersection of truly getting to know myself and appreciating life in its various aspects.  And then, in the middle of the night, my mom woke me up and told me that we had to leave and to pack.

In 1998, the Clinton administration retaliated against al-Qaeda’s bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by striking the terrorist group’s strongholds in Afghanistan.  These strike were uncomfortably close to Islamabad, and all Americans were sent mandatory evictions.  The shock of being ripped from my home, from my grandmother, and from what I knew eviscerated my comprehension of reality.

This became apparent when I unzipped my suitcase in our temporary rental apartment in Dubai to find that I had packed my pillow and only a few pieces of clothing to last me for four months in my new residence.  My pillow.

I share these experiences of being taken from what I knew because while I can’t fully relate to Noah’s experience or fathom the idea of being alone, separated by borders and ideological boundaries, and having to live in a camp with thousands of other strangers, I can recognize the state of being a refugee inside of your own head.  While I was not a refugee in the usual sense of the word, I was a refugee in my emotions, self-identified place in the world, and from what I knew.

I know what it’s like to be told that you can’t stay here.  I know what it’s like to constantly question motives and to have trust issues related to consistency.

So, let me ask you: do you know a refugee?

Or do you know the mass-media image that is portrayed of refugees as individuals coming to tear away jobs, squat on land that is not theirs, inculcate extremist religious views, or to cause violent eruptions in the fabric of the society that you know?

Do you know what the father has had to endure to ensure the safety of his young family, even when he must stay back?  Do you know what the young girl feels when her tummy growls because there’s only a little bit of food to share with her brothers and sisters?  Do you know what it’s like for the doctor who defied all odds to establish her own practice only to watch it crumble in shrapnel behind her?

I ask you to know a refugee as a mother, son, neighbor, teacher, musician, businessman, civic activist, amazing chess player, or very simply as a fellow human.  Today, these same people are refugees and they deserve to be known.

I am proud to know a refugee, and while his name isn’t Noah, I know him as a young Burundian man, a lover of peace, and a positive change-maker for the world we know.

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