Angelina Jolie leaned forward eagerly as a young Sudanese girl quietly recounted her tale of how she had fled war and hunger in her homeland and finally made her way to Kakuma refugee camp just over the border in north-western Kenya.
“She lost her entire family when she was only five years old and has been in this camp for more than 10 years. What do you say to someone who loses her whole family at such an age?” asked Angelina Jolie, visibly moved as she heard this and many other stories from refugee girls who had flocked to welcome her on this visit on Sunday. The sprawling camp at Kakuma is home to some 80,000 people.
Many of the girls moved Angelina Jolie, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, close to tears as they told her how much they wanted to go to school and receive an education, but for a variety of reasons were often unable to do so.
“These girls are so strong, so inspiring. They want an education because they want a better life, they know they don’t have to stay forever near the bottom of the pile and want to move up,” Angelina Jolie said after sitting and chatting with the girls under the shade of a tree at one reception centre.
Angelina Jolie shook her head in disbelief as she heard how many of the girls and women in the camp were subjected to various forms of violence - from rape to genital mutilation - and how many were unable to attend school due to domestic chores.
“On this trip my main concern has become the plight of refugee women and particularly girls. In Kakuma, close to 1,000 girls are out of school. I was upset to find that a good part of them are in this situation because of both early and forced marriages. I saw 12-year-old mothers!” she said.
To address the problems of young girls being abducted for marriage and early pregnancies, the UN refugee agency has set up programmes in the camp, like increasing the number of female police officers to encourage reporting of such incidents. A magistrate from the nearby town of Lodwar travels to Kakuma regularly to hear cases in a mobile court set up to handle various cases, including the abduction of girls for marriage. Refugee women committees established throughout the camp help counsel victims of early pregnancies and speak to communities about the risks of female genital mutilation. In school, an incentive programme is being run to encourage more girls to attend school. Attendance remains very irregular depending on domestic pressures refugee girls may face at home.
“As a refugee girl, you are expected to stand in line for hours to fetch water and carry it home, go out and forage for firewood, and cook and clean for the family,” said Angelina Jolie, noting that girls had to confront many other barriers in order to receive a decent education.
She made a personal donation of $200,000 to UNHCR’s work in Kenya, earmarking $50,000 of her donation to build a new school for girls at the camp. Many of its prospective pupils sang and clapped their hands as she unveiled a plaque and planted a tree at the proposed site.
“With this help, and the construction of this school, future generations of girls will be saved. Work begins tomorrow,” declared Kofi Mable, head of UNHCR’s Kakuma sub-office.
The plaque reads: “Dedicated to the emancipation of the refugee girls of Kakuma and women’s rights and freedom to education.”
Angelina Jolie said she had also heard chilling accounts of children as young as five being subjected to genital mutilation. “A number of the older women have also been raped and suffered other forms of sexual violence,” she said. “There can be no compromise on the physical safety and dignity of women as a whole, and particularly the refugee girls.”
Angelina Jolie, who is in Kenya shooting the sequel to the movie, “Tomb Raider”, also visited several other projects at the camp and handed out gifts ranging from volleyballs to exercise books. She expressed concern that a projected budget shortfall of some $20 million in UNHCR Kenya could lead to programme cuts.
“Most of the people here are already living on the bare minimum - any cut means a life,” she said, and appealed to the international community to continue to support “the work of UNHCR and the other organisations working for refugees, such as the World Food Programme - above all to ensure there is funding made available”.
The Goodwill Ambassador, who was greeted at Kakuma’s dirt airstrip by local Turkana tribeswomen, was given an enthusiastic welcome wherever she went in the camp. Young children sang songs and read poems of peace while their parents and older refugees banged drums and performed traditional dances.
She began her tour by watching a wheelchair basketball match by the victims of landmines. She moved on to a construction site where houses are built out of mud bricks.
Kakuma, which was created after thousands fled fighting in south Sudan - Africa’s longest-running civil war - also houses refugees from Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Sudanese, however, make up some 71 percent of the population.
Angelina Jolie, who has visited several refugee camps around the world since she became a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN refugee agency over one year ago, said she had seen “worse and better” camps than Kakuma. But what made this camp different was the number of girls who simply did not have a chance for a better life.
“It is not fair, it is simply not fair - every child, every girl has a right to education. Here they have just enough to survive, but they are so special, so spirited. It is I who must learn from them,” she later told a press conference in Nairobi.
UNHCR’s Representative to Kenya, George Okoth-Obbo, said Jolie’s visit was a shot in the arm to all concerned. “It is wonderful and humbling that someone so busy should find time to come here, to use her renown, her artistry, her presence, just to bring some joy into what is undoubtedly a hard life for many of the people here,” he said.