The worst game of hide and seek is being played out in Africa’s urban slums. Living in the shadows are the newest faces of the world’s changing refugee crisis: urban and alone. Over half of Africa’s 2.5 million refugees are now living in cities – only a third are in camps. Children and young women are especially in danger – hidden in plain sight amidst deplorable conditions, many are orphaned or separated from their parents. Girls as young as seven are targets of rape, forced marriage and human trafficking. Boys, too, are kidnapped and abused, or pressed into military service – forced to fight in the wars from which they fled. Instead of protecting refugees, police often extort, harass, and assault them. Many are afraid to go to school, even if they can afford it. These children, who try to remain as invisible as possible for their own safety, live precariously on the margin of the margins.
Last year Amy Toensing spent three weeks documenting urban refugee children in Nairobi, Kenya: East Africa’s largest city and the destination of choice for those fleeing Somalia, the oppressive regime of Ethiopia, or the decades-old conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She got there with funds from generous and concerned friends, family and colleagues through a Kickstarter campaign. To make it all happen Amy partnered with RefugePoint – a nonprofit organization working on the ground in Africa and dedicated to finding solutions for the most vulnerable refugees. The goal was to put a human face on the individuals living in the darkest corners of Africa’s slums. Often without homes but always dispossessed of their homeland, they live on the fringe, pursued by fear simply because they were born in the wrong country, at the wrong time.
Within this exhibit is a short film, a collaboration with Amy and her husband, Matt Moyer. The short documentary gives voice to a 12 year-old refugee boy named Claude as he describes his journey from his home country to being a refugee living in Nairobi. Claude’s story, in his own words, offers an intimate and deeply personal window into the realities and hopes and dreams of a refugee boy.
Nairobi’s refugee population is estimated to be close to 100,000 people. In Africa, 50% of refugees are children. They join the 1.5 million Kenyans already living in Nairobi’s slums where refugee families often live in one-room, tin-walled shacks, where hunger is endemic and where raw sewage runs in the streets during the rainy season. The average length of time a person spends as a refugee today is seventeen years; equal to an entire childhood for a young refugee boy or girl.
Amy Toensing has witnessed a diverse cross section of humanity while working as a photojournalist over the past 20 years. She strives to give voice and presence to those we would not ordinarily see, but she has never worked with subjects who deserve to be seen and known more than these children – robbed of home, extracted from their culture, and left without a sense of belonging in the world. And yet, Amy was awed by their resilience and ability to be children in the worst of circumstance – jumping rope and laughing out loud in the darkest alleys.
Please join Amy (and Salt) in acknowledging and honoring these children and their lives. Hopefully with the help and dedication of organizations like RefugePoint facilitating resettlement, one of them might be your or our neighbor someday.