Huriya is a student at Ainsworth Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya’s volatile Eastleigh neighborhood. She and her family fled their nearby country of Somalia when Al Shabaab extremists gained power and began forcing them to follow their radical sect of Islam. Along with 90% of the girls at Ainsworth, she wears her school uniform accessorized with a flowing white Muslim headscarf.
But the vast majority of Kenyans are Christian and many now associate Muslim Somalis with the recent wave of terror attacks on Westgate Mall and various busses, markets, and cafes across the country. A pair of explosions killed 6 people in Nairobi on March 31st, 2014, and ever since, police have allegedly been systematically terrorizing the Somali population. Eastleigh residents accuse police of banging on doors late at night asking for the occupants’ national identification cards only issued to Kenyan citizens. When the refugees explain they do not have one, the police ask for bribes. If a sufficient bribe cannot be produced, they are arrested or worse. In March, Ainsworth had 1,500 students. Now, there are just 1,000.
Senior Teacher Mary Kiarie has been with her group of students from first grade through fourth. “I have a kid in my own class, the mother was caught, taken to Kasarani [Soccer Stadium for processing],” she retold. After a few weeks break between semesters, Mary talked to her student’s older sister, who is also enrolled at Ainsworth. “Are you sure your mother is still at Kasarani?” Mary asked the older sibling. “Teacher, when we take food, the [guards] take the food, and we believe mommy is still there,” she responded.
Only later was their mother able to obtain access to a phone to inform her children that she had been taken over 400 miles to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northwest Kenya. “And the whole of April these children were taking food to Kasarani—every day, and the [guards] would take that food,” Mary lamented. “May I tell you, that kid in my class was really affected.”
The situation is very hard on teachers, as well. For instance, classes are taught in Swahili and English, and Mary’s refugee students rarely speak either when they first start school. “We have agreed to struggle with these kids,” Mary pledged. “I always say when I get annoyed with kids—I always tell my God, ‘Let it be for a minute, and the next minute I should be happy with these kids.’ This kid left home to come to another mother—and sometimes I tell them that I am their grandmother—so why should I get annoyed?”
Mary and her colleagues’ devotion pays off. Some students are graduating and going to high school and on to college or polytechnic. Deeply disturbed students have rehabilitated with the help of educators and counselors. “We try to tell the teachers just to handle them, understand them, advise them that this place is safe—not like Somalia,” Head Teacher Abdi noted. “They have changed: not one or two—many of them.”
Huriya has numerous friends in the community who cannot attend school because they lack money for tuition and uniforms. Countless are orphaned and alone. Even the lucky few able to attend Ainsworth are not adequately shielded from insecurity. Church World Service and Week of Compassion helped build a wire fence that encloses the school on three sides, which somewhat protects the school. Unfortunately, pedestrians attempting to save time on their commutes have cut holes in the barrier. Strangers walk through during the school day; some use the toilets. Criminals have attempted to evade police by fleeing onto the school grounds.
“They came with [machetes]—very scary,” Deputy Head Teacher Charles Kiragu recalled of a particularly frightening episode. “And everybody was screaming. So as not to be shot by the police they would shield themselves with the children—looked like a movie.”
CWS and Week of Compassion also helped build an extremely effective concrete wall along the street to fully impede trespassers coming from the roadside. The wall dampens noise from the commercial area in front of the school and blocks dust kicked up by passing cars and busses. “Now that we have fenced that side, at least we feel a bit of safety,” Head Teacher Abdi acknowledged. CWS additionally installed two water tanks on the school grounds to improve hydration and sanitation. “[CWS has] also taken the teachers to a workshop,” Abdi continued. “They have also taken us to another school for benchmarking. We really appreciate Church World Service for what they did.”
Most teachers at Ainsworth are Christian native Kenyans, but Head Teacher Abdi is a Muslim Somali-Kenyan. It does not make him uncomfortable that his school is supported by an organization with “church” in its name. “The community are Muslims, but they know Church World Service is very important for them,” Abdi clarified. “I explained to them: it is not there to convert you people. [Parents] don’t mind about the issue of a church—no, “Abdi concluded. “What they want is help.”
Unfortunately, help is otherwise difficult to come by for Ainsworth Primary School. The government naturally focuses on maintaining schools populated by Kenyan citizens, and the students' parents are generally too monetarily poor to contribute. “So…we feel like we belong to Church World Service,” Abdi conceded.
Every shooting, bombing, explosion, and kidnapping, regardless of whom the assailant is proven to be, seem to threaten the refugees’ existence in Kenya. “When you have good people, you also have bad people,” Senior Teacher Mary Kiarie reasoned. “It’s a mix. So you cannot accuse all the Somalis, all the refugees, of being bad. There are also some who are good, and quite a number of them are good. They also fear [Al Shabaab].”
“I don’t believe it is the refugees who are causing [terrorism],” Head Teacher Abdi argued. “I don’t because refugees want peace, and they came for peace. They can’t go back to their country…because it is insecure. The warlords are still there. The Al Shabaabs are there…you know there are those who are fundamentalist totally. They don’t want to see any other religion in that area they live. And there are those people who are normal. They say we are all human beings. We can live together. Everybody should have his own faith. Like me, I cannot go to Somalia now because I will not allow people to be just killed like that for no reason—cannot. I have my faith, but I cannot allow people to say ‘why are you Christian?’ ‘why are you…?’ no!”
As I interviewed Head Teacher Abdi, he and his colleagues brought me tea and cookies. He insisted that my colleague traveling with me, Peter, come inside and enjoy the refreshments with us. He kindly welcomed us with genuine sincerity, looked into my eyes, smiled, and declared: “A visitor is a blessing.”
Joel Cooper serves as a Global Mission Intern with Church World Service East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. His appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.”