Said's photo has been withheld for safety reasons.
Said’s daily life in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has become a testament to the struggle to survive for Somali refugees in an increasingly hostile country. The 42-year-old clothes seller turned rights activist divides his time in the Somali-dominated neighborhood of Eastleigh between detention centers, courtrooms and community meetings.
He is available to help those caught up in police roundups get out of jail; to advise new arrivals on how to register with authorities; and to join Somali community leaders in petitioning the Kenyan government for more workable legislation to govern the lives of around 600,000 Somali refugees in the East African country.
The already uphill battle took a turn for the worse in May 2016 when the government abruptly announced plans to close all refugee camps within its borders and decommission its Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), effectively leaving unregistered arrivals in limbo.
“Just thinking about the idea of going back to Somalia gives us nightmares,” said Said. “My children were born here and they’re proud of that. We want our right as refugees to live in Kenya or to go to a third country legally.”
“Just give us that chance,” he pleads.
Like many Somali refugees, Said fled to Kenya in the early 1990s after a vicious civil war consumed his home country, settling in Nairobi. His two biological children live with relatives in the Netherlands, but Said cares for seven more children, mainly nieces and nephews.
There are widespread fears of a repeat of the notorious Usalama Watch in 2014, during which thousands of Somalis were rounded up in an effort to force refugees out of the city. It was a violent and indiscriminate operation, according to the independent watchdog Human Rights Watch, in which many lost homes and businesses, some were raped and others died.
“I know we are going to suffer,” said Said. “No one has advocated for those who died in 2014, those who lost their hands or legs, their jobs, their loved ones. It’s been forgotten. Please, please, we don’t want that to be repeated.”
Activists, including Said, point out that the refugees have the greatest interest in keeping the peace and rooting out extremists. Many of them have fled areas controlled by al-Shabaab to protect their children from being enlisted.
Somali participation in efforts like Nymuba Kumi, where a voluntary security monitor is appointed for every 10 households, are evidence of this determination. “We are ready to engage the government and help resolve any security problem,” Said insisted.
“We are taxpayers, we work hard. We’re learning from Kenyans, yet we’re also contributing and allowing Kenyans to learn from us,” said Said.
As many in his community keep a tense vigil to see whether the Kenyan government will go through with its public pronouncements, Said fears that some will choose the hard, illegal road to Europe, a choice he calls a “suicide mission.”
“Refugees are leaving for Europe [from Eastleigh]. We know people who’ve died. No one wants to risk being killed with a bullet, but they will risk dying at sea,” said Said.
“Fleeing from your death to go toward death is a decision; it’s dying with freedom and the hope of reaching safety. That’s being human.”
Said’s real name and photo have been withheld for the sake of his security.
This article originally appeared on Refugee Deeply.