About the Author: Eric P. Schwartz serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration.
During our October 12-23 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Kenya, I was reminded of both the challenges and opportunities we face in preventing and responding to humanitarian crises. In the DRC, I looked at protection efforts in the east, where an ongoing humanitarian crisis has had devastating effects on the civilian population, nearly two million of whom are displaced in the region. I visited camps in North and South Kivu as well as a village to which a number of people displaced by years of conflict have recently returned. Those returns, involving more than 60,000 people, were an enormous challenge for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, as many if not most returnees were forced out of camps with little protection and assistance in returning home. As UNHCR’s single largest contributor, the U.S. government is working assiduously with the refugee agency to improve the protection provided to IDPs in the Congo. I also used my visit to underscore our government's strong commitment to preventing and responding to gender-based violence, a message Secretary Clinton emphasized during her trip to the region in August.
In Kenya, I visited the Kakuma Camp in the northwest and the Dadaab camps in the northeast, meeting with refugees and listening to their concerns. I had meetings in Nairobi with senior Kenyan security and immigration officials, as well as with representatives from international organizations and NGOs. In Dadaab, the camps built for 90,000 people are now holding more than three times that number, making this the largest refugee camp in the world. The Obama Administration and UNHCR are discussing with the Government of Kenya ways to resolve this problem. The U.S. goal is to ensure provision of much needed additional space to allow Somali refugees to live in a safer and more humane setting.
I saw evidence of much suffering and despair on this visit. But I also witnessed many pockets of grace and tranquility which were both inspiring and invigorating. In Kenya, for example, I had a long conversation with about 15 unaccompanied minor refugee girls and young women who were being assisted by Heshima Kenya, an NGO supported by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). All of them have faced extraordinary challenges, and many have been subjected to unimaginable horrors. Some of the girls visit Heshima’s center daily for education, training and a range of other activities, and some live at the center’s safe house full-time. During my visit, I could feel the sense of compassion in the environment. One young Congolese woman, who happened to be wearing an Obama hat, used her time to speak with me not to describe her prior experiences or to tell me of the counseling, education and training she was receiving. Rather, with great joy, she recounted to me the simple new pleasures of her life: sleeping in a bed at night, waking up and eating breakfast, going to class, eating lunch, and on and on. It was heartwarming to see that this small, U.S. government-supported organization was helping to provide this young woman (and others) with what should be the birthright of everyone.