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As World Refugee Day Approaches, a UPSer Recalls Her Visit to Dadaab, the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

News and Press Release
Originally published
Esther Ndichu in Kenya © UPS

By Esther Ndichu

From the air, Dadaab doesn’t appear -- it slowly comes into focus. The huge empty expanse of red dust looks like a terracotta platter dotted with pepper. As you draw closer, the black specks grow and change color, and the bare platter fills, resembling a generous helping of githeri, the beans and maize dish that is a Kenyan staple.

Only as you begin your descent does it become clear that this arid expanse of white is actually a vast expanse of tents – row upon row, both man-made and manufactured. An area designed for 90,000 now houses five times that many.

A population of more than 460,000 multi-generational families, a supermarket, bank, school and post office might describe any number of major cities in the world. But this is Dadaab, and Dadaab is not a city. It’s the world’s largest refugee camp, located about 60 miles from Somalia’s border, in Northern Kenya – the country where I born and raised.

I had come here to see for myself how a software tool developed in partnership with CARE and the Aidmatrix Foundation was working. As it turned out, I saw much more.

As the UPSer who manages financial, technical support and in-kind contributions to the organizations that support the refugees, I thought I understood Dadaab. That is, until I saw it through my own eyes.
As World Refugee Day approaches on June 20, I cannot help but remember the images from my personal experience in Dadaab, which came as part of a field engagement with CARE USA.

Dadaab is actually five camps: Dagahaley, Ifo, Ifo 2, Hagadera and Kambioos. The first of the camps was established in 1991, when hundreds of men, women and children fleeing civil war in Somalia crossed the border into Kenya. In 2011, 160,000 additional refugees arrived, this time fleeing drought and famine in southern Somalia. At the height of the Horn of Africa’s drought, Dadaab had more than 500,000 refugees.

In Nairobi, I met a representative of CARE USA, Prabhu Govindaraj, who would accompany me. The CARE team told me what to expect – extreme heat, tight security, the possibility of terrorist activity and beans. Lots of beans. As a Kenyan, heat and the food options were the least of my worries; however, the threat of terrorists made me cautious, especially after learning about recent attacks on the escort teams in Dadaab. But the CARE team assured me we would be safe.

We arrived at 8 a.m. Already the air weighed heavy on our shoulders, the temperature a dense and humid 90 degrees. The air assumed a physical presence, one you didn’t so much exist in as push through.

CARE provides relief and development assistance to three of the camps. It distributes food for WFP, stores and distributes fuel, warehouses and distributes relief items to other UN implementing partners, and maintains a 310-vehicle fleet for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and WFP.

I was anxious to see how CARE was using Aidmatrix’s Commodity Tracking Software (CTS) to track lifesaving supplies to, across and within the Dadaab camps.

I met Samson, the fuel station manager, who, by using CTS to automate paper-intensive processes, has more time to manage the fuel that powers the vehicles, and pumps the generators and boreholes that provide power and water. I saw how CTS allows WFP and CARE to distribute food based on its availability in inventory, so they can advise refugee leaders to warn their communities when to ration accordingly.

Examples of logistics, yes. Supply chain management, sure. But these words we use so casually in everyday business at UPS have life-and-death consequences at Dadaab and in other parts of the world.
UNHCR refers to World Refugee Day as a “special day when the world takes time to recognize the resilience of forcibly displaced people throughout the world.” For me, it will be a day to remember and reflect on how it feels to be part of a community and a company that are having an impact on the lives of those displaced people. I will remember Dadaab as I saw it – through a Kenyan’s eyes.

Esther Ndichu is director of the UPS Humanitarian Supply Chain. She is based in Brussels.