Kenya: we are our brother's keeper
25 May 2012

JRS has been assisting urban refugees in Nairobi since 1991. The JRS Urban Emergency Programme responds to the urgent unmet needs of new arrivals, asylum seekers and refugees in vulnerable circumstances through parishes in lower income and slum areas. Nairobi, Kenya (Peter Balleis SJ/ JRS)
I heard prayers for peace in all refugee-producing countries, prayers for the Kenyan elections and prayers for the sick.
Nairobi, 25 May 2012 – It is always possible to find a beam of hope, even when life seems too hard to bear. This is the message I heard from a group of urban refugees in Kitengela, Nairobi. The group members express their compassion for each other by meeting every two weeks for prayers and moral support. They embody the concept of being 'their brother's keeper'.

Urban shift. With the cost of living becoming unbearable in Nairobi, urban refugees are moving to new areas, further and further from the city centre. Kitengela is one such area, located 30 kilometres from Nairobi. Benefits of living here include low rent and the availability of jobs at construction sites, as the area is developing rapidly.

However, there are no services for refugees, and people are forced to travel to Nairobi to access NGO-run facilities in the city. There are only two government-sponsored schools, so refugee children have a long five kilometre commute by foot in the mornings. Local people face the same challenges; the area was formerly a pastoralist community with few existing public services.

Such challenges have nonetheless have brought the refugee community together. Last month I attended a prayer meeting in Kitengela, in which 40 refugees participated. For the refugees in this group, prayers are their source of strength. They have so many needs and hopes, and prayer is a way to attend to those pressing needs through God. I heard prayers for peace in all refugee-producing countries, prayers for the Kenyan elections and prayers for the sick.

After prayers, members contribute money to a fund for the neediest of the group. I heard the Chairman report back on how last meeting's money had been used to visit an elderly woman in hospital, and that she has now fully recovered. To me this was an extraordinary moment: even in the midst of their challenges, refugees are able to take care of each other.

Kenyan hospitality. I was amazed to discover that two local Kenyan women were in attendance at the meeting. Mary has been attending the prayer meetings regularly and is known affectionately as 'our Mama' (Kishwahili for 'our mother'). That day she had brought along her friend. True to her name, she had brought large bags of beans and maize as a donation for the group. Mary finds great joy in being with the group and this is the only way she can share in their daily challenges.

"I don't know how I would survive if I was to find myself in another country as a refugee, and therefore I'm called to be generous to refugees", she explained.

At the end of the meeting, the members prayed the Lord's Prayer whilst holding one another's hands as a sign of unity. It was a wonderful scene and a sign of hope for both the refugees and the local community.

Irene Waweru, Project Director, Nairobi, Kenya

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