Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp welcomed Valentino with open arms during his visit in February, 2017. Over 20,000 additional South Sudanese refugees will call this place home this year, as a new section of the camp is being developed specifically for the newcomers fleeing the turmoil in South Sudan. Valentino closely documented his visit to his former home.
Valentino was invited to Kakuma by Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which provides arts and sports activities to camp youth. They knew about Valentino's advocacy for universal education, especially in East Africa, and they knew about the VAD Foundation's school in Marial Bai. They thought Valentino would be a great advocate for the Camp. Valentino was curious about what the camp was like so many years after he visited. He had not been back for more than a decade, when he visited with Dave Eggers to research What Is The What in 2003.
Valentino wanted to see what had changed since he left. And once he arrived, he also felt that he could help. He scoped out areas where the VAD Foundation could support youth at the Camp, in particular girls who want to continue their education. He visited the Angelina Jolie Secondary Boarding School for girls and had an idea:
"I think we may find that we can make a dollar go a long way by supporting the educational aspirations of some of the South Sudanese youth in the Camp-- who've earned good grades but lack the money to go to college," said Valentino.
Visiting the camp was a chance for Valentino to reconnect with old friends who never left the camp, and to see what has changed since he left. Today the camp continues to help refugees, to provide support programs meant to help unaccompanied minors and women and people of all ages who’ve been traumatized by war and famine. Educational programs have improved significantly since Valentino was a refugee here 16 years ago.
Today there are many more primary schools, secondary schools and youth programs, which are educating thousands of refugees from South Sudan. One of the these programs is the Youth and Culture Program that Valentino helped to run when he was there.
The Youth and Culture Program, which Valentino helped run when he lived there, hosts a variety of sports activities--basketball, soccer, volleyball and the Kakuma Premier League, a popular tournament of camp soccer teams).
2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the camp's existence. The refugee arrivals come from 21 countries (versus 8 when Valentino left in 2001). Many were born and raised in the camp. Some have been there for more than 20 years. "It has changed a lot physically. Temporal programs and structures have become fixed. The camp is more accessible than it ever was. But it faces more funding issues than during my time -- especially for food rations," said Valentino.
Proportionally, there are fewer South Sudanese now (about 70% in 2001 versus less than half today), but with the upsurge in violence and famine, the numbers may increase again. There are also many refugee entrepreneurs, mostly Somalian and Ethiopian, serving the refugees with goods such as food, household items, bicycles and construction materials.