Kenya: A song from Eastleigh
24 September 2012

Travis Barnwell, left, Mathias Mbisa, JRS social worker, and Yahya Jemal (front) who served as a volunteer translator. JRS
I decided that I had just experienced a moment of accompaniment. A moment where I hadn’t done a single thing except be present.
Nairobi, 24 September 2012 - While I can appreciate the humility that abounds within the traditional internship of coffee brewing and photocopying, I was thankfully handed a different job description when I arrived with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). I was given the autonomy to use my social work skills, working as part of the Urban Emergency Programme team in Nairobi, Kenya. JRS exposed me to an intriguing tune of praise that after having heard the rhythm, I have now begun to understand the lyrics.

A day in the life. Each morning of my internship I leapt from my matatu (small, public bus) whilst it was still rolling, lest it never stop at my point of embarkation. I would do this directly in front of the St. Theresa Catholic Parish in Eastleigh, Nairobi where part of the JRS Urban Emergency Programme is based. I would pretend not to notice the curious eyes of the street vendors that followed my pale, blonde form across the street.

Once through the gate and past the cheerful guards, the driveway opens into a courtyard dotted with parish staff and surrounded by the chapel, offices and classrooms.

One of the offices has been gifted to JRS and houses packs of maize flour, bags of beans, sacks of rice, a cabinet full of blankets, metal pots, sanitary materials, an old computer, a few wooden chairs, and the JRS social worker, Mathias.

From this office, Mathias will receive anyone who comes to the door. Some days there is a steady stream of refugees made up of both the anxious faces of the newly arrived and the more composed presence of long-time community members. Other days it's just a trickle.

My role during these visits was to listen closely to what Mathias relayed to me from Kiswahili to English, and ask questions to clarify and spark additional explanation and understanding.

Often, a talented volunteer translator would join us to translate Somali, Oromiffa or Amharic. All of the JRS guests who visited us were refugees displaced from countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Central African Republic and Burundi, with the vast majority being Somali.

I remember the story of a young man in his early 20s who visited me twice. Through broken English and a nub in place of his right hand, he explained to me how, without parents, he passed through the streets of Mogadishu as a teenager and into the lowest ranks of a rebel group where he was provided with food and shelter. Leaving them was not an option. When he attempted to escape, his hand was sawn from his wrist.

He was awaiting determination of his refugee status from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) so that he could remain in Nairobi. On his second visit he asked me to pray that he might die, and bypass the misery of his life of struggle. I assured him that I would not pray for death, but for life, one that is entirely different from this shadow of an existence he is now occupying.

Understanding Eastleigh. Eastleigh is a vibrant neighborhood made so distinct by its massive Somali population. It is known locally as 'Little Mogadishu'. Many small businesses criss-cross the area and vary in design from concrete store fronts and metal stalls, to open-air tables piled with electronics, crafts, and fruits. Mobile business-people approach pedestrians hawking sacks of khat leaves, colourful handbags, and CDs of Islamic prayers while looking over their shoulders for city council officers that can arrest them for selling without a permit.

Children laugh as they play a daring game of hopping across stones that dot standing pools of waste and excrement. One slip means a detestable bath in what must be immune system kryptonite.

Watching over the day-to-day activity are many high-rise apartment buildings with colourfully painted exteriors. The area has a mixed-income population, but a large percentage of the residents appear to be living in poverty. A Somali family of seven will share one room that can accommodate a floor mattress or two, a chair, and a small table that holds cooking equipment.

Constructing a wobbly bridge. When Mathias and I went on our home visits for the first time, we were there to listen to our hosts and decide if JRS would be able to assist. On second visits, we were there to check if the assistance we had been providing was actually assisting.

The JRS programme entitles beneficiaries to four months of emergency food and basic material provision. The social-work element is knowing that this will not be enough and wondering along with our hosts how we can use these four months in preparation for life after the four months.

During my time with Mathias visiting refugees in their homes, I attempted to construct a wobbly rope bridge that acknowledged the atrocities of the past, confronted the let-down of an insufficient and often hostile Nairobi, and looked hopefully, yet realistically, at a future in Kenya, should resettlement in any number of countries be everlastingly postponed.

We visited many mothers who are deeply troubled and have often been abused. One, a pregnant mother of five with a soft voice and kind eyes, joined us on the floor next to her five children. She told us about her husband being killed by a rebel group in front of her before she fled with her children to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Tears began to roll down her cheeks as she explained her fear of staying in Kakuma after she was raped. We discovered that the sexual abuse in fact has resulted in her pregnancy.

Her children, from teenager down to toddler, sat with their eyes fixed on the ground, silent. After wiping her face she flashed a brief smile at us both and said: "Thank you, thank you" as if alleviated in part. I decided that I had just experienced a moment of accompaniment. A moment where I hadn't done a single thing except be present.

During my temporary experience with JRS, I realised with no small amount of clarity, that Mathias and the other social workers are ever-present heroes. Mathias feels the flood of need at his office door all the time, passes through states of helplessness often, carries the emotion of his refugee guests always, and still he is sustained by his faith to provide as full a dose of accompaniment and service as his own health will allow.

Spending such rich time around Mathias didn't only leave me with a lasting appreciation for his friendship and character, I was also witness to the miraculous nature of accompaniment. It sounds soft and fluffy, and many government donors fail to understand it because it's immeasurable, but I know its truth. I have seen it in action and felt it myself. As a result I will never be the same.

I committed to this internship from the outset because of the mission JRS pursues. Beyond simply helping, assisting, and being available to people in need, JRS believes in and calls for transforming the lives of those forced to wander in exile so that a new story might begin narrating their journey. Such a call demands a rooting in the faith and a willingness to wander with the suffering refugee in a way that expects to deeply feel that suffering, expects to encounter the Lord, and expects restoration.

The lyrics that JRS writes in accompaniment, that Mathias and all the other social and pastoral workers sing in the field, and that will remain written on my own heart, have been expressed in praise before: "My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit, a broken and humbled heart, O God, you will not disdain." (Psalm 50)

By Travis Barnwell, JRS Nairobi

Travis Barnwell is a Masters in Social Work (MSW) student from the Catholic University of America. He spent three months with JRS in Nairobi. JRS has been assisting urban refugees in Nairobi since 1991. The Urban Emergency Programme responds to the urgent unmet needs of newly-arrived asylum seekers and most vulnerable refugees through parishes of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, situated in lower income and slum areas. It helps refugees survive in a situation new to them through provision of food and non-food items, financial and medical assistance, pastoral and psychosocial support.