Blessing and struggle

Blessing and struggle: My work with refugees in urban Africa

By Teddy Salimo Akolonge

My name is Teddy, and I’ve been working for JRS in Kenya since February 2009. I am married, with three children, and am also a student of counselling psychology. I began with JRS as a volunteer appointed by St John the Baptist Catholic Church. JRS partners with Catholic parishes to assist refugees in urban areas. While the parishes provide office and storage space and workers, JRS provides support services and materials for distribution.

Looking back …

During my first three years with JRS (2009 – 2011), donor funding was high. There was a budget for almost every need presented by the refugees. Our stores were well-stocked with food and non-food items. There were many new refugees then, especially from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In my job, I welcomed new refugee beneficiaries every month, and at the same time had to phase out a similar number of refugees who no longer required as much assistance. Once a year, preschool and secondary school scholarships were also provided. Rent support for the most vulnerable refugees was available throughout the year, and kits for expectant mothers were distributed. Access to medical services in those days wasn’t a problem, especially for asylum seekers.

Changes …

In November 2012, we began to face new challenges after the Government of Kenya introduced its “encampment policy,” following a series of violent incidents. This policy required all refugees to move to designated camps and limited their rights to employment and movement. It adversely affected all urban programs for refugees and led to a decline in donor funding for them. At the same time, we experienced an influx of refugees from DR Congo, South Sudan and Somalia.

JRS and other agencies came together to challenge the government’s encampment policy in court. They argued that it contravenes refugees’ rights, and were able to prove that refugees are not a burden but rather a resource. However, until now the policy remains in effect.

The new situation forced JRS to reduce the period that families are served in our food program by more than half, and we no longer carried non-food items in our store. The number of scholarships was also reduced both for preschool and secondary school, and rent support for vulnerable refugees was cut back. Financial assistance to refugees at the parishes stopped, and for a while access to medical services was also stopped.

In addition to less funding and fewer resources, refugees sometimes had to wait for services. Some could not understand why they could not get certain things. Others accused me of favouritism, not realizing that there are criteria for placing or phasing out people in our programs. One of the most challenging experiences for me personally was when we began receiving LGBTI refugees from Uganda in 2014. It was very difficult for me to listen to them, and I had many questions in my mind, but I provided them with assistance just the same.

Through all these challenges, I felt rewarded by seeing refugees leaving my office with smiles on their faces because they had received a service they needed so badly. Children jumped up and down saying “thank you” because they knew they were not going to go hungry for a while. Such responses, whether for food, scholarships, or help with a business start-up or employment, still make me happy.

Going forward …

The changes that I’ve described have meant that JRS has had to make very difficult choices about which of its services are critical and which must be dropped. This year, for example, we had a proposal for helping refugees more holistically: when they came for food assistance they would also become part of a livelihood program, which would then provide a good exit strategy. But while we received funding for food, we did not get funding for the livelihood component.

One positive development in the JRS program in Nairobi has been the introduction of university scholarships. Although the numbers are small, it is a good move.

After years of working for JRS, this year I and my fellow social workers were taken on as JRS staff and given contracts to sign. This brings many benefits. Best of all, our morale has risen and we’ve become more energetic serving refugees.

This article by Teddy Akolonge originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of CJI’s Mission News. Teddy is a social worker with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Nairobi, Kenya.

(Photo: Miriam Lopez-Villegas/CJI)