Breaking language barriers

The first time I had heard about Dadaab was in Don’s (my supervisor) office. I had approached him in the fall to talk about a project called Success Beyond Limits when he mentioned BHER. I listened politely. Higher education for refugees? In the world’s largest refugee camp? I was intrigued, but what he was telling me was so removed from my reality that I couldn’t grasp its weight. I never thought that a couple months later, I’d be working in Dadaab as a TA.


Aerial view of Dadaab

At the beginning of April I stepped off a plane and found myself in a sweltering semi-arid desert, an environment completely removed from what I had known. But I coped with the heat, brushed off the dust (literally), followed the new rules and routines. What was more challenging for me was learning to maneuver with the people. I was working with students and staff of different languages, customs, cultures. Unlike Hawa who was raised by Somali parents and was familiar with some cultural nuances, I came from a continentally different context. We were strangers to each other, but as the weeks progressed, this gap began to vanish. There are things that speak to people beyond a mutual language and culture. Things like making the effort to listen, even if you don’t fully understand everything. Or having a genuine interest in someone’s well-being. Taking the time to remember names, receive smiles, say hello.. Making an effort to be a genuine person— it speaks volumes when you can’t say much else.

swahiliBut of course language communicates so much more, so I decided to try and learn Swahili while I was in Dadaab and it became a point of connection for me. I told the students that they were my teachers and they would take my phone, write Swahili words with English translations or record pronunciations for me. Some of my teachers were strict, others more patient. I caught glimpses of their personalities and I’m sure they saw some of mine— it was quite fun.


There were ups and downs, but looking back, Hawa and I both realized our time in Dadaab had been very special. We had made new friends and were thankful for the stories, laughs, and memories. But these connections weighed on us. The news reports, books, and research articles I read following our trip became sobering because of the people we had come to know. It is they who linger.