About the Author: María Otero serves as Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs.
It's about 10'clock in the morning, and the sun overhead is relentless. On the northern Kenyan border, the refugee camps that make up Dadaab are a combination of orange sand and brush. These camps were built in 1990 to hold 90,000 refugees fleeing neighboring Somalia. Today, more than 266,000 refugees live here. What was once supposed to be a temporary escape is now “home” to three generations of families. And the influx of Somalis shows no sign of slowing.
Visiting the camps' schools offers a small hint of hope. Hundreds of children are crowded into cement rooms. Despite the lack of space, they sing their lessons loudly and proudly.
"I am Maria," I say.
"I am Maria!" they respond.
Less than half of the children in Dadaab have the opportunity to go to school. Classrooms and teachers are in short supply, and 95% of teachers are untrained.
After visiting the camps' schools, we meet with refugee leaders, newly elected by their neighbors. They express their frustration. I don't blame them. They are far from home, longing to return but stuck in limbo with little to fill their days. Memories of life in Somalia are a fading dream, and their community away from home suffers from severe overcrowding and imminent challenges such as access to water, firewood, and healthcare. Sanitation is inadequate, with as many as 30 persons sharing a communal latrine. That said, the excellent work of UNHCR and international NGOs like Care International is both visible and admirable throughout the communities.
Under Secretary Otero traveled to East Africa January 25-February 1 to engage with governments and civil society on an array of global issues that address human security. The East Africa trip culminated with the Under Secretary leading the U.S. delegation to the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa.Follow the Under Secretary on Twitter @usmariaotero.