TEDx Kakuma Camp redefines what it means to be a refugee

Everything begins with an idea; that is the motto around which TED built their brand. And it’s evident as refugees turned poets, film-makers, models and teachers sought to shatter stereotypes and inspire a global audience on Saturday at the world’s first TEDx event hosted in a refugee camp at Kakuma.

TEDx events, a world renowned non-profit organisation devoted to ideas worth spreading usually in the form of short, powerful talks delivered by today’s leading innovators,thinkers and doers, are often broadcast live internationally and watched online by millions of viewers. TEDxKakumacamp which held on Saturday at the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya saw refugees share stories of resilience and creativity at the rare web-streaming event.

“TEDx events are often in privileged settings so we thought about bringing the power of the TED stage to a refugee camp,” UNHCR’s Melissa Fleming told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We wanted refugee speakers to use this platform to tell the world not just what they have gone through, but also show that they too have amazing things to offer.”

There are at least 22 million refugees around the world, says the UNHCR, mostly fleeing conflict, persecution or rights abuses in their countries. About 90 percent are being hosted in developing countries including Kenya in camps such as Kakuma.

The one-day gathering marked the first time that TED—the influential conference network that hosts online talks on a range of scientific, cultural and academic topics around the world—held an event at a refugee camp.

From a stage set up in a white tent in a school playground in Kakuma camp in Turkana county, TEDxKakumaCamp brought together current and former refugees, as well as activists and aid workers, to share their experiences in an effort to change perceptions and break stereotypes.

According to Aljazeera, the refugee speakers spoke of how war had forced them to leave their homes in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Somalia. They discussed their struggles to restart their lives as refugees, their battles to fight cultural practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation, and their desire to return and rebuild their homeland.

The speakers included activist Riya William Yuyada, teacher Mary Nyiriak Maker from South Sudan, Congolese film maker Amina Rwino, and Sudanese poet Emi Mahmoud. South Sudanese track-and-field athlete Yiech Pur Biel, who represented the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and Somali American supermodel Halima Aden, who grew up at the Kakuma camp were also present. 

Aden, 20, said at the event that despite sometimes not having enough food to eat or being sick with malaria, she enjoyed a happy childhood. Kakuma helped her gain a sense of community and respect for other cultures, Aden said, adding that she wanted to change the narrative of refugee camps as a place of despair.

“I want you to remember that although the children here are refugees, they are children,” Aden said at the TEDx event. “They deserve every opportunity to flourish, to hope, to dream, to be successful. My story began here in Kakuma refugee camp, a place of hope.”

The international fashion model who has featured on the covers of magazines such as Vogue, was born in Kakuma refugee camp and lived there for seven years.

The Kakuma camp was set up in 1992, initially to take in mostly Sudanese refugees. It now hosts about 185,000 people who have fled war or persecution from 19 African countries. A May 2018 report by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the UNHCR estimates Kakuma’s informal economy is worth $56m, a figure the Turkana County government says denotes the hard work of the refugees.

Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and co-host of TEDxKakumaCamp, told Al Jazeera, “Most Europeans, Australians and Americans think that all the refugees are coming their way, but frankly most of them are in countries like Kenya and yet they’re invisible.

“We are hoping with this event, we could really illuminate the camp but also the extraordinary refugees, the talents and ideas they have by putting them on as powerful a stage as the TED stage.”

In a rare web-streaming event showcasing across the globe, the influential conference covered a range of issues from scientific, cultural and academics topics around the world with the theme “Thrive” showcasing how refugees can help change not only their lives but communities they live in. Also, the different exhibitions at the venue gave visitors a chance to witness the unique Turkana culture and display exceptional talents from those at the Refugee camp.