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Urban Refugees: Ingenuity is Essential to Making Ends Meet in Nairobi

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I stepped off of a teeming street into Aamina's* apartment, where the floury, slightly sour scent of injera lingered in the air. A round stove, a small TV, and a set of bunk beds lined the teal-gray walls of the one-room flat that Aamina shares with her two children and two employees. The tiny, crowded space also serves as Aamina's place of business. She bakes injera, the spongy Ethiopian flatbread, to sell in her neighborhood.

Aamina came to Eastleigh, a sprawling slum in Nairobi, Kenya, after her husband was killed by the government in Ethiopia. Fearing for her family's safety, Aamina escaped across the border with her mother and her two young children. She decided to settle in the city because she feared that Kenya's refugee camps lacked economic opportunities and the health services her ailing mother depends on. But like millions of other refugees living in urban environments today, she struggles to provide for her family, relying on whatever means and skills she can.

Making ends meet is often difficult and dangerous for refugees living in cities, where paying rent and buying food can be a daily struggle and finding work is complicated. Most host countries do not allow refugees to work legally, so people find themselves forced to take jobs that pay "under the table." Refugees with no legal protection risk exploitation and abuse by their employers. Even refugees like Aamina who manage to start their own small business face severe challenges.

Every morning Aamina bakes injera, which she sells out of her apartment and delivers to shops and hotels. She manages to scrape by on the money her business brings in, but her income fluctuates. She struggles to pay rent and other bills, which include her employees' salaries and her children's school fees.

Aamina's income remains limited because the constant threat of police harassment restricts her ability to move around outside and expand her clientele. Aamina is wary of leaving her home, as police regularly harass refugees in Nairobi and demand bribes in return for escaping arrest, deportation and sometimes even sexual assault. Refugees are harassed by police, regardless of whether or not they have registered with the Kenyan government. When Aamina cannot pay, they take any goods she may be carrying, such as the bread she intends to sell or the food she has purchased at the market.

Still, Aamina does everything in her power to overcome these obstacles. When she goes outside, she walks with her children or with pregnant women to discourage hostile police attention. And when she is approached by police, Aamina calls on a strong support network of women who, in order to protect themselves, have pooled their money together in a reserve fund. When one member of the group is harassed or arrested, they are prepared to try and avoid such abuse by paying for the bribe from this fund.

Ingenuity, resolve and mutual support have been a means to overcome adverse circumstances for Aamina and many other refugee women in Eastleigh. But the odds remain stacked against them, and the international community could be doing more to help. Aside from a training workshop she attended led by the International Rescue Committee, Aamina has received no assistance from governmental or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). She is registered with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), but is not aware of any resources they may offer. The fact is, there are just not many programs in place to support urban refugees.

Until recently, the international community has largely overlooked the needs of refugees in urban settings. Today, more than half of the world's 10.5 million refugees live in cities and towns, as compared to one-third who live in camps. All over the developing world, urban refugees are doing their best to navigate foreign environments, economies and cultures with little guidance or assistance. As Aamina's experience shows, refugees adapt to life in their new cities with determination, creativity and skill, but that doesn't change the fact that their options are limited.

NGOs have a vital role to play in ensuring that this underserved population has access to job training, credit to start and build businesses and protection from violence and harassment.. The over five million refugees striving to survive city life need safe opportunities to work that sufficiently provide for their needs. In Nairobi and cities worldwide, hardworking women like Aamina deserve the chance to make better lives for themselves.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

The Women's Refugee Commission Livelihoods Program has launched a new research initiative, Urban Displacement: Developing an Understanding of Economic Needs, Protection Concerns, and Livelihood Strategies, which focuses on identifying how urban refugees are making a living in cities like Nairobi and the kinds of protection risks they face.

The Livelihoods Program is developing guidance and recommendations on how to more effectively enhance the self-reliance and dignity of refugees living in urban areas.