Jessica Gladden, PhD, LMSW

The coping strategies of Sudanese refugee women in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

Sudan has undergone severe civil disruptions and war for several decades. In the early 1980s, many refugees fled to other countries, especially Ethiopia, due to a particularly brutal period of war. However, in 1991, Ethiopia forced the refugees to leave the country. Kenya opened a new refugee camp, Kakuma, for these refugees. There has been a lot of research conducted with refugees once they have come to the United States or Europe, but not much has been done in the refugee camps where the largest numbers of refugees reside. Also, few studies have focused on the experiences of women refugees. For this study, I traveled to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya and interviewed 30 women on how they cope with all of their experiences.

Most of the women said they did not have enough help and support. The study hoped to focus on emotional needs, but the physical needs of the women were much stronger. Most of the women talked about not having enough food to feed their children. They had some social support from family or neighbors, but not as much as was expected. Many of them talked about being alone, or as they often said, “struggling alone.” A large number of the women also relied on religious beliefs, especially beliefs in God, that He knew of their struggles and would help them. Some of the younger women also hoped that having an education would allow them to eventually find employment. There were also issues of dependency found in the women’s stories. They were forced to rely almost entirely on handouts from the United Nations and had no way to support themselves. This can lead to difficulties when they return home or are resettled, as they are often used to being given all they need and do not have education or skills to try to support themselves in their new environment.

This research gave us several ideas for what we can do to continue to assist refugee women. While the women are in the camps, it would be helpful to find a way to provide for more of the basic physical needs, such as food and improved shelter. This would require a large commitment of funds to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Family reunification both between camps and overseas should be a priority. An increase in activities that would assist the women in providing for themselves would also be extremely helpful in limiting the feelings of helplessness and dependency on the camp system. For example, a few programs have provided women with supplies for crafts, which can give the women a form of income to supply some of their needs for themselves and their families. More programs of this kind would be welcomed by the women.