Amy Schwartz, PR/Communications fellow at the HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya (HRTK), is blogging from Kenya this summer for HIAServe and Repair the World. Amy will be a fellow at HRTK until the end of August, and will continue to update us from the field.
Chapter 1: Karibu To Kenya
Arrival into Nairobi: 13:30 on Monday, the 31st of May to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
See in the distance: Steven, a driver at the HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya, holding my name up boldly and smiling. “Karibu!”, he says.
What is Karibu do you ask?
Swahili for ‘Welcome.’
Okay makes sense; he was waiting for me to arrive for my fellowship with HRTK and wishes me Karibu! But what I found out instantly was Karibu doesn’t just mean the standard. ‘Welcome’ that you might see on signs, storefronts, and border crossings.
Karibu also means ‘you are welcome here’. You are welcome here in Kenya. Karibu! A greeting not only to say hello, but that I was wanted here in Kenya. For a moment, I was almost confused! And it wasn’t jet lag.
Being both Jewish and American in 2010, ‘You are welcome here’ is not the normal greeting you usually get in most places. From a travel perspective, I sometimes have to hide my American accent or Jewish roots to ‘ease the pain’ and to avoid certain conversations. As we all know, depending on where you travel, being Jewish already associates you with Israel whether or not you have even been there. For example, as I have learned since arriving in Nairobi, I should tell my taxi driver each Friday before Shabbat , if he doesn’t understand the word ‘synagogue’, I am going to the Israeli religious center. Funny enough, the synagogue in Nairobi is in the center of town.
So after this wonderful greeting at the airport we drove about an hour to the HRTK Office.
With no expectations on how my new office environment and colleagues might be, Karibu! A few times over. Again, not just welcome, but that I was welcome here in Kenya. ”Thank you”, I said.
I then learned ‘Asante’ in Swahili means ‘Thank you’.
I want to personally say Asante to all my new co-workers at HRTK for such a warm arrival in Nairobi.
Chapter 2: “A refugee wishes they had your problems”
Let me first give you a short background of what the HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya does and why their services are highly needed. First off, conflicts in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek safe haven in Kenya and Uganda (HRTK does missions to Uganda 3+ times per year)
HRTK provides protection, psychosocial counseling, and other assistance in resettlement to these vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees who are mostly survivors of torture and/or sexual/gender-based violence. Preparing for a few months that I was coming to HRTK to help film and document the program, I knew in my mind that they worked directly with these vulnerable refugee groups, but as we all know…Seeing is believing.
I was quite surprised with myself of the initial shocks I felt the first time I had to look into the eyes of a refugee. I went with one of our protection officer’s to pick up a client from a Cultural Orientation (where they learn how to integrate in their new country—this specific case was the U.S.) and drop her back off in Eastleigh, a slum of Nairobi where a lot of Ethiopian and Somali refugees live. It is my gut instinct to smile when I meet new people. So I smiled, and instantly I thought…no, Amy, don’t smile this is not a happy moment. This woman, well girl, about 19 years old, of the Oromo ethnic group from Ethiopia, has been through trauma I could never even imagine.
We are then sitting next to each other in the back seat of the car and I pretty much froze. I did not know how to act or what to say. I was also very thirsty, but didn’t want to take out my purchased 1 Liter bottle of clean water right next to her. That would be rubbing that I have money into her face, right? And I can’t talk to her because we don’t speak the same language. But then again, HRTK is helping this young girl start a new life, so this is a happy moment, right?
And that is only the beginning. I haven’t even heard her story yet.
I want to share with you one of the many cases HRTK handles for resettlement. The case is not of the 19-year old from above, but from another young woman from Somalia whose son is sick with Hydrocephalus (an excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain). To read the full story and view a related video clip, visit Amy’s HIAServe blog.