It is hard to be a refugee, but I think it must be even more difficult to be a refugee child, trying to learn and grow and enjoy childhood despite living in some of the most challenging circumstances on earth. On a trip to Kenya, I visited with refugee children in two very different locations: in the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya and in a safe house in Nairobi for girls who are victims of violence.
In the large (103,000 inhabitants and growing) Kakuma Camp that shelters refugees from Somalia, South Sudan and other nearby countries, aid workers grapple with a big problem: there is little respect for the rights of children. Many children are forced to work, others are neglected or expected to raise little siblings and some suffer from other forms of exploitation. Too many have been orphaned or separated from their parents. Nearly all the children live precarious lives.
In the camp hospital, we saw a baby whose feet and lower legs were badly burned by falling into a cooking fire -- an unfortunately common occurrence. A child from the local Turkana community that surrounds the camp was malnourished and getting emergency feeding. Nearby, a beautiful but listless girl lay in her mother's arms, stricken with a severe case of malaria.
There are 15 primary schools in the camp, but only about one-third of children attend school. Many of the students in primary school are older children, desperate to get an education. Some parents are reluctant to send girls to school because they know they will come in contact with boys. Positive steps are being taken, though. For instance, Angelina Jolie has endowed a boarding school for girls that ensures a number of refugees will get an education.
There are non-governmental organizations in the camp that support children and other vulnerable populations. FilmAid, a non-governmental organization supported by the U.S. Department of State, uses the medium of film to convey important public service messages such as awareness-raising on the needs of children and to provide some entertainment to camp residents. We visited FilmAid as they were running a session for women and girls on standing up against SGBV. There are also child rights' clubs and youth centers in the camp.
Children are also victims of sexual and gender-based violence, which aid workers refer to as "SGBV." According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), 25 percent of SGBV cases involve children. About half are girls and half boys who are abused, raped or otherwise harmed by adults.
The U.S. Government is responding to the needs of all refugees in Kakuma, including these vulnerable children. In Kenya, PRM provided over $53 million in humanitarian assistance in the last fiscal year and we will be continuing aid in FY2013. This enables our international and non-governmental organization partners to provide a range of services in Kakuma and elsewhere in Kenya, including health care, information and education, child protection, psycho-social assistance, prevention of and response to SGBV, and reception and registration for new arrivals.
In Kenya's capital of Nairobi, I met refugee girls who were victims of SGBV. They live at a safe house called Heshima Kenya, which is supported by the U.S. government. The adolescents, several of whom had children, will stay in the safe house until foster families can be found.
They also learn basic literacy and math and receive training in tailoring so that they have a marketable skill. I was particularly impressed by the dedication of the Kenyan staff members who demonstrated obvious affection for these refugee youth.
Many of these children were first traumatized in their home countries and forced to flee violence or persecution. Here in Kenya, they have a chance to recover from the horrors that prompted them to become refugees in the first place. Aid from the United States and other donor countries is essential, however, to keep them out of harm's way and safe from further danger and exploitation. In each place I visited where boys and girls were helped -- from the camp hospital, to a FilmAid discussion group, to Heshima Kenya's safe house -- I felt a great pride in my country for doing so much to rescue these vulnerable children.