As fighting in Somalia between Islamist insurgents and the transitional
government backed by Ethiopian troops has intensified over the past
year, thousands of refugees have been streaming into neighboring Kenya,
despite the Kenyan government's decision to close the border in
January. While the majority take up residence in the vast refugee camps
near the border, many skip the camps and head for the Kenyan capital,
Nairobi. Derek Kilner has more from VOA's East Africa bureau.
Somalia's government collapsed in 1991, tens of thousands, perhaps
hundreds of thousands of Somalis have made their way to the Kenyan
capital. Most of them head to the neighborhood of Eastleigh, on the
outskirts of downtown Nairobi, transforming what was once an enclave
for Kenya's Indian population into what has come to be known as "Little
The air is filled with the sounds of the Somali
language and the smell of Somali food and spices. Somali men gather to
talk outside small mosques and women pass by in hijabs. But what
strikes the visitor most is the bustle of one of Nairobi's most
thriving commercial centers.
Aided by an extensive smuggling
network, the neighborhood is a major regional hub for low-priced goods.
The narrow streets are lined with shops, stalls, and makeshift stands
offering everything from textiles and used clothing to the mild leafy
stimulant known as kaat.
Kenya has a sizable ethnic Somali
population, and many of the shop-owners are Kenyans. But much of the
economy is driven by Somalis working informally, lacking Kenyan
immigration papers and, having chosen to avoid the refugee camps,
lacking documented refugee status and assistance from the United
Mohamed Ahmed Yahye works in a street-front shop
selling shampoo, perfume and other products. He says he works all day
and doesn't have the time to apply for refugee status. He says he makes
enough to pay his rent and put food on the table, but nothing extra.
Abdullahi, who sells textiles from a sidewalk stand, fled from Somalia
as a young girl in the early years of the civil war. Now in her early
20s she has spent nearly her whole life in Eastleigh, but her status is
just as precarious.
Many of the young Somalis in Eastleigh
cannot even find informal work. Adam Yusuf Jimale came to Nairobi in
2003, after spending two years at the Kakuma refugee camp near the
"There is no place to work, because I am
refugee," he said. "I live with my friends. I don't like to stay in
this country, because many times I look for the job, everything depends
on the ID."
Yusuf Issak, who was a high school principal in Mogadishu, has been in Nairobi for six months.
is not something easy, it's too difficult," he explained. "Until now
we are searching to get registration. I have tried many times.
steady stream of new arrivals from Somalia has driven up housing costs.
Abdi Nasr Kujufay, who was a teacher in Mogadishu, fled to Kenya in
October last year.
"The rent is very expensive," he noted. "Other expenses are very expensive. It's very hard."
Kenyans have been priced out of the neighborhood, with Somalis sharing
apartments, sometimes as many as nine or 10 to a room. Those without
work often stay with relatives or friends who have jobs, or who receive
money from family abroad. Issak, the former principal, receives money
from relatives in Australia and Britain.
population and commerce has overwhelmed the neighborhood's aging
infrastructure. Unpaved roads become sticky with mud when it rains or
dusty when the weather is dry. The narrow streets are perpetually
jammed with traffic and trash piles up on the side of the road. With
the Kenyan government largely turning a blind eye to the refugee
population, the neighborhood receives little in the way of public
With few police around, crime is also a problem.
Muggings and carjacking are common, and the neighborhood, many say, is
the place to go to purchase automatic weapons.
When police do
come to Eastleigh, it is often to crack down on undocumented aliens.
The Somali population has been a source of terrorism concerns, and
sweeps have often followed terrorist attacks like the 2005 London
bombings, when East African Muslims were suspected of involvement.
Despite the struggles of daily life, Issak says things are much better than in the country he left.
difficulty is about the document only," he said. "There is fighting in
Mogadishu, but I prefer to stay here. One day I will get that document
as I hope, after that I will leave to Australia."
refugees in Eastleigh, Issak would like to return to Somalia when
fighting ends. But with international peace efforts showing few signs
of slowing the conflict, it may be a long time yet before he sees his