DADAAB, Kenya — At night he dreams of the sea.
As a young man, Noor Hassan Shanglo spent years working on cargo ships that carried apples and oranges from South Africa to ports across Europe and the Middle East. He fell in love with the blue waves and the bright streets of Sicily, Durban and Dubai.
Now he lives in a place where food does not grow and sand blows constantly, shading the sky gray. It has been 22 years since he last saw the ocean.
He did not come here by choice. Nobody does.
When civil war erupted in his native Somalia in 1991, Shanglo and his family escaped across the Kenyan border and took shelter near the tiny town of Dadaab at what was supposed to be a temporary refugee camp.
“We thought in one or two years, peace would prevail and we would go back,” Shanglo said.
But the conflict continued. And what started as a few tents clustered on a bone-dry stretch of Kenyan desert grew into the largest refugee complex in the world.
Today more than 356,000 people, most of them ethnic Somalis, live in five camps spread over 20 square miles. Shanglo, who is 65 now, with a thin white beard, lives in a camp called Dagahaley.
In some ways it is like any other town, with schools, mosques, cemeteries and orderly rows of mud plaster homes, each with a yard protected by a crude stick fence. In the bustling commercial district, shops sell clothing and electronics made in China. The refugees have organized their own system of governance, with fiercely fought election campaigns complete with candidate debates.
But any normality ends there.
Kenyan law makes it difficult for refugees to obtain jobs, which means the vast majority have to rely on food aid. The law also restricts their movements outside the camps, constraints that have tightened amid a government crackdown on Kenya’s Somali community since a deadly attack in Nairobi last year by the Somali militant group al-Shabab.
Shanglo feels stuck between Somalia, which he longs for but believes is still too dangerous to return to, and Kenya, which doesn’t seem to want him.
On a recent morning he stood in loose pants and a yellow embroidered skullcap outside a large warehouse where thousands of people had come to collect monthly food rations. He watched women in billowing hijabs press their thumbs to biometric machines to verify their identities and drag off heavy sacks of sorghum emblazoned with American flags.
“I am here,” he said. “But I don’t see this as a life.”
Mary Muia’s mother thought she was crazy for taking a job in the camps. And when Muia first arrived in Dadaab nearly five years ago after a blazing hot 10-hour bus ride from Nairobi, she wondered whether her mother might be right.
But then Muia, a program assistant for CARE International who was born on Kenya’s coast, thought, “If other people are living here, why can’t I?”
Aid groups are involved in every aspect of life here, providing more than $75 million in education, health care, water and sanitation each year. People joke that the first letters of the alphabet that most kids learn are UNHCR, referring to the United Nations refugee agency, which oversees operations at the camps along with the Kenyan government.
The nerve center of the world’s largest humanitarian aid effort is behind razor wire and walls built to withstand bomb blasts. Muia, 37, and the workers who live here are allowed out only for essential trips. Their convoys kick up storms of dust as they speed across the desert between the camps, trucks of armed guards leading the way.
The security measures were put in place a few years ago after al-Shabab operatives kidnapped several foreign aid workers for ransom and targeted police vehicles with bombs.
Dadaab is about 50 miles from the highly porous Somali border, and refugees say the sprawling camps, which do not have security perimeters, are home to al-Shabab militants and their sympathizers.
The workers living here try not to dwell on the risks, but there are jitters. During a recent dinner in the compound for a worker who had just been promoted, a woman startled when a stray cat brushed against her foot.
“What are you freaked out about?” joked Muia’s boss, a Canadian named Rod Volway. “They’re not armed.”
If the refugees feel confined in the camps, so do the aid workers, boxed in at a much smaller complex of their own. The main attraction most nights is the big screen at the Grease Pit, a small canteen next to the mechanic’s shop. After she finishes work for the day, Muia likes to unwind by jogging along a gravel path that runs just inside the compound’s walls, three miles if she makes the circuit.
A Christian who attends weekly church services in a chapel built at a police station to protect it from al-Shabab’s attacks, she said working with refugees had deepened her faith. This year she started a pen-pal program between elementary school students in Dadaab and Syrian children living at a refugee camp in Jordan.
She keeps a poem written by a Dadaab student taped to her desk:
Children don’t know war
They don’t know corruption
Children don’t hate!
The poem is called “Peace.”
Muhamed Omar Othowa doesn’t remember Somalia. He was 4 when his parents brought him to Dadaab, fleeing clan warfare that broke out after the overthrow of Somalia’s longtime military dictator.
But now he’s thinking about going back.
Over the last few years, Dadaab’s population has declined from its peak of 463,000, reached when the 2011 famine in Somalia swelled the camp’s ranks. Some refugees have made their way to Kenya’s cities, officials say, often with falsified identification documents obtained through bribes. Others have returned to Somalia, where the drought has abated and the political situation has somewhat stabilized.
Othowa, 26, is one of about 10,000 Somalis who expressed an interest in returning home after Kenya, Somalia and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees signed an agreement last year to begin repatriating refugees.
A product of camp schools, studying only in the daytime because there was no electricity at night, he won a scholarship through the UNHCR to study nutrition at a college in Nairobi.
But he returned to Dadaab after encountering what he described as repeated harassment by Kenyan authorities in Nairobi’s mainly Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh. Although he had permission to be in the city to study, he says he was forced to pay bribes three times to avoid arrest.
He says he’ll risk his life in Somalia because his options are so limited in the camps.
“Children are getting an education,” he said of young refugees. “They have diplomas and degrees. But where are you going to apply it? Where are you going to test the fruits of your education?”
In Dadaab, he said, “you cannot move on.”
Ruman Harun Nasib and Salima Noor Abdi belong to a distinctive club. Both 18, the young women are among more than 106,000 children born at Dadaab since the camps opened more than two decades ago.
Even though most have never set foot on Somali soil, camp babies are considered by law to be Somali refugees instead of Kenyan citizens.
Nasib and Abdi live in Ifo camp, but they are dreaming of Canada. Best friends who walk with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders, they study together for hours each day in the hope they will be among 15 students granted scholarships to study at universities there.
Unlike a large number of teenagers in today’s world, Nasib and Abdi do not have televisions or cellphones. “Our book is our television!” Abdi said, laughing. So they were thrilled when they were given the morning off school and invited to a party.
It was a celebration of World Refugee Day, which is observed each year by the UNHCR to raise awareness about the plight of refugees throughout the world. To outsiders, it might seem a sad cause for a holiday. But for those living in camps, it was a welcome recognition of their status.
After passing through a security checkpoint, Nasib and Abdi took seats around a sun-bleached basketball court. Men loomed with long sticks, swatting at gaggles of boys who were having a hard time keeping still.
The event began with a moment of prayer from a local sheik, who gave thanks to UNHCR, even though the agency had barred most of its employees from attending because of security risks. Then two lines of teenage girls in matching blue and white school uniforms walked out. They were members of the Kenya Scouts Association, which has a chapter in Dadaab.
As sand gusted, the girls recited the Scout pledge (“I promise that I will do my best / To do my duty to God / And to my country”) and a poem they had written for their fellow refugees (“You are the cream of the crop / The world is full of promise”). When they gave a rendition of the Somali national anthem, everyone sang along.