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This is a collection of former students’ retrospectives about their study experiences. These are personal accounts and should not be seen as objective assessments of any given course. Nonetheless, they aim to be informative and provide an “insider view”. Anyone is welcome to contribute their account and should read the guidelines here. Please note that the views expressed are solely those of their authors, and in no way necessarily reflect the views of the editorial team.
Internships: UNHCR - A Peek into the Humanitarian World
Contributed by James Owuor Onyango   

Year of internship: 2006

Why Dadaab?

James Owuor Onyango The four years in college came to pass and I had to come up with more resourceful ways of taking up my new responsibilities, not as a student, but something in between. Transitions can be unsettling and my case was no exception. With two months to my final exams, I got the offer to take up a six months internship in the Dadaab refugee camps working under Community Services Unit.

It is worth mentioning how I got my internship. By the time of my application, the official statement according to the UNHCR website was that no internships were available. Prospective interns were encouraged to keep checking the website from time to time. As I was discussing the same with one of my classmates later on, she encouraged me to fill in the Internship form and submit it to the UNHCR Branch Office. Two weeks following my application I received a phone call from the Community Services Officer Sub Office Dadaab inviting me for an interview. The interview was conducted at the branch office and about twenty minutes later I was offered to participate in the programme. That's how I found myself in Dadaab. This underlines the fact that in this line of work one needs to be insistent you never know when your assistance may be required.

I was elated to get the offer, for this was one of my dreams come true: to be involved with an international humanitarian organization and take an active role in working towards practical and beneficial change. I was also excited to have the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment. What more can an Anthropologist ask for? At last, an opportunity to observe and try to explain peoples’ world views in relation to the environment in which they lived i.e. refugee camps, and come up with functional explanations to unraveling phenomena. As an ardent believer in community-based development approaches and people-driven initiatives, Community Services was the perfect opportunity having freshly come out of college. I was also excited at the idea of being in a totally new environment far removed from what I was used to.

Dadaab at last

It was Monday the 29th August 2005. Previously I had been informed of the weight limit; maximum of 10kg on the small carrier to Dadaab. However on the day I appeared at the airstrip with 25kg luggage. Luckily most of the passengers had minimum luggage and that’s how I found myself at Dadaab with my 25kg of possessions. After about one hour the plane touched down and there we were, in the middle of “nowhere”, the heat wave and expanse barren land bordering the airstrip. We spent the rest of the day in the conference room following the proceedings of a new way of working UNHCR was rolling out in its field operations: “Participatory Assessment (P.A)”. This is how I was introduced to the work at Dadaab and marked my first day.

Dadaab is a collection of three refugee camps Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera. It is located approximately 80km from Kenya Somali border and about 110km from Garissa, which is the nearest town to the camps in North Eastern province. Whilst taking the plane takes about an hour from Nairobi, the same trip takes almost eight hours by road. The area is inhabited by nomads herding camels, cattle, goats and donkeys. For over fifteen years the camp has been a home to Somalis, Sudanese, Eritrean, and Ethiopian, Rwandese and some Tanzanian and Ugandan refugees. The total camp population stands at about 130,000 people. Given the arid environment and the Kenyan government’s encampment policy, the population purely depends on aid from the humanitarian organizations.

The nature of humanitarian work in Dadaab is fragmented in the sense that a number of NGO’s have specific areas of concentration with UNHCR monitoring the programme implementations. Ideally Community Services UNHCR is responsible for, but not limited to, monitoring activities falling under CARE-Dadaab Community Development section. In general terms this translates into looking at refugees’ social protection issues holistically.

Under the overall supervision of the Community Services Officer, the CS team is charged with the responsibility of looking at novel ways of addressing needs, beyond basic human requirements, given the protracted nature of the operation. A regular visit to the camps and “homes” of the refugees becomes part of the routine work. This is essential as it gives a true picture of the situation on the ground. This then is followed by a recommendation based on the findings on how best the underlying concerns could be appropriately addressed.

Often coming up with durable and timely solutions may be very elusive considering the channels one has to follow. In such instances frustration levels may soar, the respective refugees waiting for feedback gradually loose faith in the aid worker, often feeling that their issues are not being addressed with the urgency they deserve. It hence makes it unnecessarily difficult to establish mutual trust and amicable working atmosphere. Desperation ensues, and leads some refugees to resort to alternative means of addressing social concerns. One example is buying ration cards from fellow refugees instead of following the standard procedure.


One soon realizes the need to have a deeper understanding of the challenges the refugees face from a contextual socio-cultural point of view. This helps in making informed decisions at the policy and programming level. When the two processes are ill-informed, the resultant interventions usually turn out to be misplaced and fail to deliver the intended remedy.

As an anthropologist

As a social scientist, and more so an anthropologist, I found Dadaab to be an intriguing place in more than one way. With trained eyes one soon perceives a number of intricate dynamics of social interactions. It is fascinating for instance to realize how particular groups of people have adjusted to the ways of life in the camps; leaders stamping their authority and carving a niche for themselves in this community, assuming a relatively prestigious existence compared to other refugees.

In quest for education in the Somali dominated camp schools, it is not surprising to find a girl of none Somali origin adorned in the Somali hijab. The circumstances within which these traits are developed are fascinating as they may seem very negligible tendencies but when analyzed up close, one discovers that these constitute culturally adaptive mechanisms to make ends meet. With time people tend to develop “sub cultures” as the environment and terms of interaction dictate. In our case you find that the Somali being a majority, the minority groups are forced to adapt to fit in this predominantly Somali society.

Among the larger Somali community there are those opposed to the long-standing cultural practice of female circumcision. Groups have emerged questioning the rationale and usefulness of the tradition. Among the population, there are youths who have come out and state their willingness to marry uncircumcised females; this is amazing considering the socio-cultural implications. Simply put these young men and women are questioning an integral part of a long standing tradition, which contextually interpreted constitutes disobedience.

Also notable are the variations one finds in the institution of marriage amongst the communities living at the camps. It is not uncommon to find split families. A majority are single mothers whose husbands got resettled. Leaving them behind is something that “an outsider” would find very unsettling. How can one consciously and deliberately desert his family in a refugee camp?


War is never a solution to any conflict or disagreement, and to become a refugee is to be very brave. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to secure the safety and peace of whatever area we occupy, and should we ever find ourselves trusted with the responsibility of assisting the victims of war, we must strive to realize their rights. In my opinion we should treat the responsibility with awe for it is a privilege. Decisions we make in those capacities determines the way someone’s life unravels.

There are no words that would do justice to the extent to which Dadaab as a field operation equips anyone seeking practical experience in humanitarian work, as long as they remain open minded. I intend to go back to college to pursue a master’s degree in development studies. My time as an intern gave me a practical experience which I intend to integrate with theory in college. Intense interactions with individuals of different socio-cultural backgrounds enable one to cultivate tenets of tolerance to ensure peaceful co-existence. The nature of the operation is such that people stay within an enclosed compound hence the boundaries between social and official or professional life become quiet fuzzy. This experience has enabled me as an individual to delimit my personal space and balance both social and professional life, though the geographical space remains the same after working hours. One soon realizes that the difference between theory and practice in the field can be quiet marked, depending on the nature of the operation and capacity of the different humanitarian organizations on the ground. All said and done the golden rules in any sphere still remains knowing your capabilities, knowing your place, knowing a little more than is expected of you, and always being one step ahead.



  • meeting people with a variety of backgrounds and practical experience
  • getting field experience
  • opportunity to concretely positively impact people's lives

  • limited social life
  • cynicism may set in if one stays too long
  • institutional inertia

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