International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Health and hope for refugees in Kenya

As Earth Day approaches we’re taking a look at some of the environmental concerns that arise in humanitarian crises; among them, how to address a growing litter problem in the massive Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya.

TURKANA, Kenya—The quickness of Negash Mengiste’s warm brown eyes divulge his intelligence. Ten years ago, he served with the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia, working to ensure a reliable, adequate supply of food to the nation’s population. Today, having been forced from his native country amid political upheaval, he is a refugee in Kakuma.
 
Despite this drastic change in circumstance, Negash continues to work tirelessly toward a better future. With the help of several other refugees, he has founded Hope for the Vulnerables, a community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering refugees and improving the quality of their lives and their environment.

Years earlier, Negash had worked for the International Rescue Committee on a community-based clean-up and education initiative. The IRC had phased out the program after 17 years, but Negash decided to revive it, recycling his experience as a nonprofit  worker and a government adviser. Today, Hope for the Vulnerables has a staff of approximately 300 refugees dedicated to improving community marketplaces, using hand-drawn carts to collect and transport waste to IRC-run refuse pits. The staff also teaches 2,600 students basic literacy, numeracy and job training, holding classes in subjects ranging from simple arithmetic to environmental education to peace education. 
 
Hope for the vulnerables mission sign, Kakuma refugee camp

Hope for the Vulnerables is a prime example of community partners taking ownership of their lives and resources to improve their society.

(Photo: Jane Yang/IRC)

Haron Emukule, the IRC’s environmental health manager in Kakuma, points to one of Hope for the Vulnerables’ large hand-drawn carts used to collect and transport waste from the marketplaces to the IRC-run refuse pits. Haron tells me that the IRC’s environmental health program plans to adopt the same model: It’s been shown to work more effectively than asking individual households to deliver trash to the landfills. 

Sitting at his desk in the IRC-sponsored office, Negash tells me that he hopes the organization can expand its programming to meet more needs of the refugee community. Smiling shyly, he mentions that it would be helpful if the building could be connected to a source of electricity—preferably solar—so that his staff could write proposals during work hours rather than waiting until they go home, where they are connected. 

Nevertheless, Negash expresses great optimism, a mood captured by the carefully handwritten banner, declaring Hope for the Vulnerable’s mission, that hangs on the wall behind him. For the IRC, Hope for the Vulnerables is a prime example of community partners taking ownership of their lives and resources to improve their society. For me, the banner symbolizes how much the organization has been able to do with so few resources. 

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