Refugee speakers steal show at historic TEDx event

Tens of thousands tune in to first ever TEDx in a refugee camp.

Refugee speaker Mercy Akuot on stage at TEDxKakumaCamp. Photo: TEDxKakumaCamp/Tobin Jones

Refugee speakers wowed audiences around the globe when they spoke at Saturday’s TEDxKakumaCamp, the first ever TEDx event held in a refugee camp.

“We’re most proud today of our refugee speakers, this is the first time they’ve ever been on such a public stage,” said TEDxKakumaCamp co-curator Melissa Fleming while opening the event in Kakuma Camp, north-western Kenya.

“We hope this TEDxKakumaCamp will illuminate what a special place Kakuma is because of its remarkable people,” added co-curator Dana Hughes.

Established in the remote Turkana region in 1992 to serve Sudanese refugees, Kakuma Camp is now home to those displaced by wars across Africa.

Talks were held in a specially-erected tent in the forecourt of a Kakuma Camp school and featured presentations from twelve expert speakers under the theme Thrive.

Listening in the tent was an audience of 350 Kakuma residents, corporate sponsors, representatives of the Kenyan and foreign governments, and international NGOs.

Kakuma residents watch TEDxKakumaCamp event from a viewing area outside the tent. Photo: TEDxKakumaCamp/Tobin Jones

Tens of thousands more watched a livestream of the talks — made possible by Kenyan mobile provider Safaricom — and joined viewing parties across the US, Latin America, Europe and Australia.

Battling heat and dust to share their stories of determination, speakers offered new, constructive angles on the refugee experience.

The audience broke into cheers as 23-year-old South Sudanese runner and former Kakuma resident Pur Biel shared his story.

“In life, we all face struggles,” said Pur, who arrived alone in the camp as child and went on to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. “You can either run away from it, or towards it. But the important thing is you keep on the road and keep running.”

Pur remains close to Rebecca Nyagony, his adopted “Kakuma mama” who still lives in the camp and was watching in the audience.

“We are proud of this boy,” said Rebecca, who is also from South Sudan. “He is representing Kakuma and South Sudan. It’s an achievement for all of us. We thank God for that.”

Less familiar to the audience was Kakuma resident Mercy Akuot, a South Sudanese social worker who escaped forced marriage and now supports ambitious young women in the camp.

“If we empower women, we will defeat poverty and defeat violence,” said Mercy, to loud applause. “It is our joint responsibility to change the culture that oppresses and damages women.”

Outside the tent, a screen transmitted the talks live to hundreds of watching Kakuma residents, with a twin viewing area in Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya.

“We came here today because we have guests from all over the world,” said 48-year-old Congolese refugee Yahima Bisman, who had come early to get a spot in the shade. “It’s good for us to see these people representing us. If someone sees us here maybe things will change.”

Organizers worked closely with senior TED advisor Bruno Giussani to channel the power and reach of TEDx, a program of regional events modelled on the non-profit platform for sharing world-changing ideas.

Refugee speakers were joined by an expert line-up of activists, models, actors, psychologists and economists, whose talks explored innovative ways of tackling the refugee question.

Several touched upon their work in Kakuma’s neighbouring Kalobeyei community, a pioneering integrated settlement, also in Turkana county, in which refugees and host communities live side by side.

“We want to find solutions that will not only be supportive to refugees but also to host communities,” said Turkana county governor Josphat Nanok in an on-stage discussion with Fleming, UNHCR’s communication chief.

Other highlights included performances by newly-appointed UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, the slam poet Emi Mahmoud, and Kenyan hip-hop artist Octopizzo.

“It’s amazing to see how the refugee speakers have overcome all these barriers without giving up,” said Diana Armini, Global Manager of the H&M Foundation, a TEDxKakumaCamp sponsor. “It’s a reminder that we’re all so much more alike than we think.”

All talks will be available to view on YouTube in the coming weeks and the entire event can be viewed now on UNHCR’s Facebook page.