Resettled in the Heart of America: Part 4

In this fourth part of our World Refugee Day special series on the experiences of men and women from around the world who resettle in America, we speak with Khamisa, who fled violence in southern Sudan – now the world’s newest state, South Sudan.

Written by Hanne Steen Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Khamisa, from South Sudan, with her children, inside her home in Boise. Angie Smith

From Violence to Destitution: Khamisa’s Story

In 1996, when she was 10 years old, Khamisa’s father was murdered in a land dispute with his own family in southern Sudan. To escape becoming direct targets of violence, Khamisa and her mother fled to Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, one of the largest such camps in the world.

Since then, their hometown has become part of South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011, breaking off from Sudan after years of genocidal conflict. But its transition to an independent state has been far from peaceful.

Both Sudan and South Sudan have suffered longstanding ethnic and political conflicts, severe droughts and drastic changes in climate that have made agriculture and development nearly impossible. Two civil wars spanning decades resulted in the deaths of 2.5 million people, with millions more displaced and infrastructure severely neglected.

Kakuma Refugee Camp, where Khamisa grew up, is currently home to 179,000 refugees from neighboring countries. Many have lived there for extended periods in conditions almost as desperate as the ones they fled. Malaria and other diseases, frequent dust storms, ethnic and religious persecution, sexual violence and lack of education have made life grim to unbearable for most of the people there. In recent months the Kenyan government has demanded that Kakuma and other refugee camps in Kenya be permanently closed later this year, citing security concerns. However, critics say the government is, in fact, eager to stop shouldering the burden of hosting long-term refugee populations. The move will mean that 600,000 already displaced people will be repatriated to unstable conditions in their home communities – many effectively becoming twice displaced.

Khamisa is one of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who lived for years in Kakuma in abject poverty, fear of violence from both within and outside the camp, and with no opportunities. But she is one of very few to be granted refugee status in the U.S. She now calls Boise, Idaho, home.

Khamisa’s Words

I grew up there [southern Sudan] till the age of 10 and then went to Kenya with my mother to seek refuge. It was 1996. It was not easy. The only thing that I remember is that we had been without food for a very long time – several days. The only thing around was fruit from the desert. We managed to stop a truck heading towards the Kenyan border and they helped us cross over.

If you’re someone who has lost hope and you don’t believe that there is a God, life in the [Kenyan] camps was impossible. There was a lot of killing going on. The local people would come at night with guns and start shooting people. Sometimes, they would not take anything – just kill and leave.

When we were staying in the camp, we girls didn’t have the opportunity of regularly attending school. We were told that as women we could not do a lot of things. Early marriages were common. Girls in school would be removed from classes because there was a man with enough money or cows to marry them. Families there were so poor that they looked at us girls as part of their income, or rather an investment. If you were a girl who started menstruating they counted you as a woman who can take care of a family.

Moving to Boise

Even if you know the language, the environment is new to you. You don’t know when and how to get to the market and other simple things. Thank God I had social services. They helped me through counseling and with finding resources. When I first moved here, I used to work two jobs and sleep only one and a half hours every day.

Now I’m much stronger, not like before. I had remained with all this [experiences and memories] for a very long time. I couldn’t talk because when I would start talking I would start crying. But after the counseling sessions and interacting with different people, I am stronger. The place where I am working has been helpful too, especially when I have not been able to put my kids in day care.

Even before I came here I used to believe in doing things on my own. I always wanted to stand on my own two feet. That’s why I have been working at least two jobs at a time. I’m still young, I’m strong, I can work. I thank God as I have everything I need. I have eyes. I have my hands and feet. A lot of people use food stamps, but I want to do everything on my own.

I always dreamed of becoming a nurse. When I was in the camp I did a course with UNHCR [the U.N. Refugee Agency] as a mental health care assistant for a year and a half. I enjoyed working as a caregiver. I decided it was something I wanted to do in the future – to help people. I saw a lot of people lose their life [in the camps] because there was no one who knew about medicine.

My kids are the ones who keep me going. If I can see them laughing every day, I don’t worry about anything. I just feel happy. I feel thankful. I believe everything that happens to a human being happens for a purpose. If all these things didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t have been here today.

This series has been produced in collaboration with Stronger Shines the Light Inside – a photography project that tells the collective story of resettled refugees in Idaho. We will present a new individual account every day this week in the lead-up to World Refugee Day on June 20.

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