DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya — From above, the airstrip is an exclamation mark of asphalt, the only paved thing for miles, surrounded by an endless plain of lava-red sand.
When you descend, the shapes distinguish themselves. There is a pink bus parked on the edge of the airstrip. There are dozens of refugees with bags at their ankles, staring through the barbed wire at the plane that will take them from this 26-year-old camp. It's the only place many have ever known.
Where are they going? There are two possibilities. Either they have given up on refugee life — where every year there is less food, less shelter, less everything — and they are returning to Somalia. Or the miraculous has happened and they are on their way to the United States.
I've been visiting Dadaab, one of the world's largest refugee camps, for the past three years. I've come to think of this strip of asphalt as the capital of the camp, the departure point for its luckiest and unluckiest residents, their lives overlapping one last time.
I can't tell where the refugees are going until I ask them. Sometimes the answer is Omaha. Sometimes it is Mogadishu. Once a man held up his papers to show me where he was going. "Iowa," the paper said, and he smiled in the 100-degree heat, sweating under his new winter jacket.
A few years ago, there were more plane trips to the United States than to Somalia. Now it's the other way around. The resettlement of Somali refugees in the United States has almost ceased entirely. The Kenyan government is threatening to shutter the camp. Thousands are returning to a failed state, 50 miles away, that has been destroyed by nearly three decades of civil war.
So much of life in Dadaab is waiting for your trip to the airstrip, hoping your family will wind up on a flight to the United States and not the one to Somalia. There's almost nothing you can do to determine whether that happens. "God decides," Somalis say. But the camp is not a place of resignation — and it certainly wasn't in 2017.
It was a year of Googling "Donald Trump" and texting the United Nations refugee office here and asking anyone who might know anything about the newest U.S. travel ban. Nowhere in the world was there a larger concentration of people who were affected by the White House's decision to suspend refugee admissions — at first globally, then from 11 "high-risk," mostly Muslim countries. In February, Dadaab had 14,500 people who were already in the pipeline for resettlement.
It was a year of looking for alternatives to the United States. I followed a 20-year-old girl as she competed for an impossibly competitive Canadian scholarship. There were whispers of Australian and Swedish and British solutions, most of which never materialized. There were Somalis joining the thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. There were Somalis hiding in Nairobi.
It was a year of journalists, like me, asking permission to enter huts and tents the size of our laundry rooms, where families of seven slept in the dirt, treating us with far more generosity than we deserved.
"Would you like anything to eat?" I was asked over and over by people whose food rations have been slashed by the United Nations, which has struggled to cope with too many global crises. I once saw a man picking up grains of rice that had been dropped during an aid distribution.
What I wanted to know was how it felt to live in a hut at the end of the earth, while all of your escape routes narrowed; how people explained to their children what the world outside the camp looked like; how they bore such bad luck with such grace. What I asked was whether I could have a few minutes of their time.
Often, the refugees asked
how I could help them — to do something for their children, improve their family shelter, ensure their trip was in the good plane, not the bad one.
Foreign correspondents have a ready answer for such questions — that we can't directly assist the people we're writing about, that hopefully our stories will effect some larger, systemic change.
But here's a sad truth: The refugees of Dadaab are given less food now than when I started writing about them. The 5-year-old girl with cancer whom I wrote about — who is in need of medical treatment in the United States — is still blocked from traveling there, because of national security concerns.
The United Nations is still offering cash assistance to refugees who return to Somalia under a "voluntary repatriation" plan, even after some of the returnees were killed.
Sometimes I met refugees who were part of the first wave of arrivals here, reaching Dadaab just as Somalia's civil war was beginning in the early 1990s. I asked them to describe the camp before it became a camp.
"There was nothing," one man said.
"We made huts from the branches we found."
"Some of the children died of mysterious illnesses."
Now Dadaab has its own markets with clothes from China and watermelon from Somalia and camels from central Kenya. But tree branches are still propping up plastic sheets. There is a ban on "permanent structures" because, after all, refugee camps are meant to be temporary fixes.
How different is Dadaab in 1991 from northern Uganda in 2017 — a place flooded with more than a million South Sudanese refugees after intense fighting across the border? How different are the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey from the Somalis who converged here? One of the reasons I kept returning to the camp was because it held lessons so clearly applicable elsewhere — and almost always ignored. In 1993, long-term refugee situations typically lasted about eight years. Now, that number is up to 26 years. Dadaab is our future, inaction materialized.
I spent a lot of time last year with refugees who were glued to cellphones, their Facebook feeds providing windows into worlds they had never seen.
A man asked me, "Is it true Sean Spicer will resign?"
A girl told me, "My favorite American singer is Taylor Swift."
When I returned to Nairobi, I texted with some of the refugees.
"What did you do this weekend?" one woman asked me.
"I took my dog to the park," I said, which made me hate myself a little.
"I am inside my small room," she said.
Each time I landed in Dadaab this year, I met a man named Mohammed Rashid for coffee in a market stall run by refugees. He was a small man with a huge smile who rode his bicycle around the camp, a plastic flower sticking out from the handlebars.
The air in the stall was almost always hotter than the coffee.
"How's your family in Florida?" he always asked me.
He was 38. It was his 25th year in the camp. It was the year his third child was born. It was the year his hut was demolished in a flash flood. It was the year — another year — in which he waited for the State Department to pick his name from the resettlement list.
The day after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the White House's travel ban to take effect, he posted on Facebook, "Refugees you have still big hope." Mohammed had almost no reason to be optimistic, especially this past year, and sometimes I worried that he was setting himself up for a huge letdown.
Whenever I saw a crowd of refugees at the airstrip, I looked for Mohammed. He wanted to go to Seattle or New York, but every city sounded pretty great to him.
One time, over coffee, I asked him whether he really thought this was the best time to move
a family of Somali refugees to the United States. He read the news as much as I did. He knew about the attacks on Muslims and the hostility toward refugees. He followed Trump on Twitter.
He looked at me like I was crazy, like a man who flew back to Nairobi and took his dog to a park, like someone who believed that Dadaab could be improved simply by writing about it.
"Bro," he said. "It's still the greatest country in the world."
Correction: This story was updated to correct Mohammed Rashid's age. He is 38, not 34.