The first-ever TEDx event in a refugee camp took place in a small town in northwest Kenya.
TEDxKakumaCamp on June 9 brought together current and former refugees besides other speakers and performers to share stories of perseverance and creativity. The aim is to steer away from the one-sided narrative of suffering and dejection. The theme of the event—“thrive”—is also about showcasing how refugees can help change not only their lives but the communities and countries in which they live.
The gathering, modeled after the TED global ideas conferences, comes as refugees in Kenya continue to face maltreatment and uncertain futures. Authorities have also threatened to close the largest refugee camp in the country at Dadaab.
In many ways, Kakuma is a camp that exemplifies this spirit of resilience. Established in 1992, the camp is home to more than 185,000 who have fled conflict and disaster in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Amid the sprawling mass of tents and shelters in this remote area, stories of hope and tenacity have emerged. Many refugees have also proved to be self-reliant, establishing businesses and engaging in thriving economic activities.
A recent study by International Finance Corporation showed that Kakuma camp and the surrounding area are a marketplace worth over $56 million. There are more than 2,000 businesses in operation. The refugees have strong spending and buying power, trading with local community hosts, and investing in buying everything from food and cosmetics to mobile phones. Approximately 69% of the camp’s residents also had access to mobile services and the internet, improving their future business and investment prospects.
In Kakuma, the success stories include Mesfin Getahun, who fled Ethiopia in 2001, but now manages a wholesale business so successful it has won him the nickname “the millionaire.” Kakuma is also home to Yiech Pur Biel, who was part of the first refugee team in history to compete at the Olympics, in 2016. The camp is also the birthplace of Halima Aden, the first hijabi model to grace fashion’s top runways.
Both Aden and Biel will share their inspiring stories on stage at TEDxKakumaCamp—another sign that giving opportunities to refugees helps them leap seemingly insurmountable obstacles.