Everyone wants to start life over somewhere else.
People’s fortunes rise and fall according to the resettlement lists posted at the UN compound every week. The citizens of Kakuma talk about asylum countries the way they discuss their favorite football teams (Manchester United and Chelsea). They rely on information gleaned from the Kakuma rumour mill, the generator-fueled televisions that play at the ‘hotels’ at night, and those who have gone before.
‘Australia’s the best,’ someone says. ‘It only takes a year for the paperwork. It’s really fast.’ Australia, though, won’t take people who fail parts of their medical examination, particularly those with HIV/AIDS.
‘America’s tough since 9/11,’ someone else says. ‘It takes forever.’
An Ethiopian friend, Mamush, calls me, excited and drunk. He has spent his entire adult life in Kakuma – waiting for this day. ‘I am going to America, Becky,’ he cries. He left his country when he was 21 years old. He is now 42 – and during that time in Kakuma, or ‘the crossroads’ as he calls it, he has been ‘waking up each morning and trying to find a way of killing time.’ He tells me I don’t understand what time means in Kakuma, because I act as though there is not enough of it. ‘For us, Becky, there is too much.’
When I see him the next day, he tells me he will meet Obama in America. He tells me he will write books. He tells me Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela represent the greatness of America. ‘In America there is freedom,’ he says. ‘I want freedom.’
Mamush has seven days to say goodbye to everyone he knows. I ask him where in America he is going. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. He hasn’t checked yet. I ask him what he will do once he gets there. ‘I will do anything,’ he says. ‘I have been waiting my whole life – and now this is my reward. This is the end of my journey.’ A week or so later he will arrive in Baltimore.
Everyone is somewhere on the path to resettlement.
‘I was supposed to go to America,’ says Andrew, 30, a towering Sudanese teacher. ‘But September 11 happened and they stopped my case.’ Andrew is one of the Lost Boys, the first refugees to come to Kakuma. He and thousands of others walked there from Sudan in 1992. Almost 4,000 Lost Boys were resettled in the America in 2000. Andrew was not among them.
I tell him that his application might have been rejected because he said he handled a gun and fought in Ethiopia when he was seven years old. If you admit to fighting in a conflict, you are often denied resettlement in America. He doesn’t seem to hear. He still hopes that America might change its mind.
‘Until then, I’m still lost,’ he says.
Act Six: The Rumour Mill will be published next week.
Photo by the author.