* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A passion for education saved Lam in a Kenyan refugee camp and enabled him to help other refugees later
Lam Tungwar Kueigwong is a refugee. Or rather, he was a refugee and has recently become a refugee for the second time, in the aftermath of the violence that struck South Sudan last December.
But he’s much more than that. He’s a youth ambassador, an activist and a world-renowned musician. He’s also a former child soldier who gained his first taste of education in a refugee camp in northern Kenya.
On World Refugee Day, we remember the more than 15 million refugees in the world – and the tens of millions more displaced within their own countries. For many refugees, life is hard and the prospect of ever returning home fades with every passing year. To those looking in, it’s easy to see these uprooted people as helpless victims, ever reliant on aid from the United Nations, aid agencies and their host countries.
But Lam, and thousands, if not millions, more are living proof that there’s much more to the story of refugee life than that.
Lam, taken into the ranks of the rebels, fled war-torn southern Sudan at the age of 9 with fellow child soldiers. After over a month of travelling on foot, they reached Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya – both a sanctuary and a terribly unsettling place. Reflecting on his first memories of the camp, “it wasn’t anything like when we were in the war. You couldn’t hear gun shots any more. It wasn’t where people were being killed… we could be safe,” he said.
But the peace of the refugee camp also forced them to sever themselves from their child soldier pasts in a traumatic way. Many stories of child soldiers in South Sudan mention how their leaders told these young boys, ‘your gun is your brother’. Having to give up their weapons on arrival at the camp was terrifying and almost pushed some of Lam’s friends into turning back to southern Sudan and the only reality they knew.
Other parts of refugee life were difficult for the young boys. Kakuma camp housed refugees from many countries – Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda and many more - a confusing situation for an uprooted child separated from his family. The lost boys had to adapt to living in another country, allow themselves to be taken care of (a struggle for a former child soldier) and try to process the trauma of the war they had escaped.
Lam sought refuge in the education he had missed. “Most of us were 14 years old by then and we had never gone to school.” Education was something he was looking for the whole time growing up in southern Sudan - “it was something like gold that we found in the camps”, he said. Schooling proved to be an incredible lifeline for Lam and many of his friends – they have gone on to have successful careers in South Sudan and beyond. Working with youth to discover their potential and helping child soldiers escape conflict and enter schools is now part of Lam’s broad portfolio of work.
He has also tried to give something back to the country that housed him during his early refugee years. In 2007, a controversial election result sparked two months of cross-country violence in Kenya. Lam was called on to Kenyan national media to speak to people carrying out and affected by the violence. “If you really want to destroy your country, just hear my words first,” he remembers saying on a Kenyan radio programme, “I’ve seen refugee life, it’s not something you want… you have to stop the violence and try to solve the problem politically”. He has since carried these sentiments back into South Sudan as he tries to help stop the violence there.
Life for refugees is not easy. Torn from their homes and families, many find themselves in countries where legal, societal and economic barriers prevent them from finding work and education – what we’ve found to be one of the greatest sources of despair among refugees and displaced people, particularly for youths. But given the right conditions, people can thrive and bring great skills and resources to their host and home countries. Lam’s story is just one of many that demonstrate the incredible potential within refugees and displaced communities – and on World Refugee Day, this is what we should celebrate and strive to make possible for all refugees.