A President's Reflections

The Power of Hope

Posted on November 1, 2019

I recently spent three days at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, one of the world’s largest with nearly 200,000 displaced people, with my colleagues in the Aspen Institute Ascend Fellowship. Our Global Education Movement (GEM) works to bring full Southern New Hampshire University degree programs to refugee learners in the camp, so our team knows the camp well, coordinates with the UNHCR team on site, and does remarkable work with our students and partner JWL there.  

While I have visited our other GEM sites in Lebanon, Rwanda, S. Africa, and Malawi, this was my first time to Kakuma, tucked away in its remote desert location in Turkana country, the poorest region of Kenya. It was a gut punch.

I don’t know that the refugees in Kakuma suffer any more or any less than their peers I had visited elsewhere. As poor as Kenya is, Malawi is poorer (the poorest country on earth by some estimates). There are markets, entrepreneurs (even a reputed millionaire), commerce, and even a football club, FC Kakuma.  

What hit me so hard was not the privations (I have seen those many times), but a simple conversation with a young man who had spent 26 years in the camp (he was brought there at age 3 or 4; no one knows exactly), almost the entirety of his life. Without any family. His smile is beatific, he is a poet, buys candy for the children near his shelter. He said to me, “Sometimes I think I’ll never get out and maybe I should give up, but I have to step back from that black place and keep hope.” It broke my heart. He is too sweet for a world that is often too cruel, that keeps 200,000 people in a prison of sorts for decades. His clinging to hope in such a hopeless place was almost too much to bear.

The number of displaced people in the world is now over 70 million and the average length of time as a refugee has climbed to over 20 years. Kakuma drove home the enormity of the problem. That conversation drove home the near hopelessness that comes with the feeling that the world doesn’t care, that no one is listening. Indeed, a staffer told us that suicide rates are climbing and that they spiked with the news that the US is drastically cutting its refugee resettlements and favoring those with high incomes and education. Globally, less than 1% of refugees get resettled, but it’s the slim hope that can sustain.

We hope to get the young man in question to our campus, with a full scholarship. When we told him he was overcome. But I later shared with Ignazio, the UNHCR camp administrator and a wonderful man who has worked in the world’s hardest places, that I despaired at the enormity of the need, that in helping one or two, we were leaving behind so, so many.

He immediately interrupted me and said, “Stop. Don’t go there – it will eat you up. You do all you can for all those you can. That’s what you can do and it’s the only way to stay sane in this work.” Later, when the student was thanking us, he also expressed a kind of survivor’s guilt and worried about those he was leaving behind. Ignazio said to him, “If you get to America, you are doing so for all those who are still here. You will be the hope. You must do this for them.”  

We all work in worlds of programming, budgets, planning, stakeholders, personnel, and all the machinery required to do the work we do. However, the young man and Ignazio gave me the two essential reminders I so badly needed:

That we must do all we can for all we can in the places we find ourselves.

and

We are in the business of hope.

The work we do can’t fix the great shortcomings of humanity, but it can change – even save – the lives of those we touch. And that gives hope for all those we do not touch.  

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