Stage set for first ever TEDx event in a refugee camp

On 9 June, TEDxKakumaCamp will feature 12 expert speakers exploring the theme ‘Thrive,’ in a historic event by and for refugees.

Pupils at a school in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya play with the TEDx logo. © TEDxKakuma/Tobin Jones

By: Josie le Blond, in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya

The tent is up. The chairs are out. The stage is waiting. After months of preparation, a bold vision is set to become a reality. TEDxKakumaCamp, the first ever TEDx event of its kind, will take place this Saturday June 9 in Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya.

“I hope that we will shine a light into a place that was invisible before,” said TEDxKakumaCamp co-curator Melissa Fleming. “And I hope to change the narrative about refugees. Refugees are rebuilding their lives here. The world needs to know in order to show them the compassion they deserve.”

TEDxKakumaCamp offers a different lens into the reality of life as a refugee.

Billed as a historic event for and by refugees, TEDxKakumaCamp will feature presentations from twelve expert speakers under the theme Thrive. Among them are three current and former Kakuma Camp residents, whose stories of resilience will offer a new, constructive view of the refugee experience.

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. Resulting filmed talks, once published online, have a potential audience of millions around the globe.

This Saturday’s event will be held in a specially erected tent venue in the forecourt of a Kakuma Camp school. Thirty-eight tonnes of equipment had to be transported to the remote site by a convoy of trucks — a tough four-day drive from the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

Flash floods threatened the entire event after a bridge was washed away, but it was rebuilt and after a four-day wait the convoy passed. The venue was then built from scratch by an army of Kenyan contractors, supported by UNHCR, corporate sponsors and a huge team of volunteers.

“It’s remarkable to see a space where there was absolutely no facility, a four-day drive from Nairobi, transformed into a state-of-the-art event space,” said Fleming, UNHCR’s communications chief, after she and the organizing team visited the finished venue for the first time on Thursday.

“I was overcome with emotion,” added TEDxKakumaCamp co-curator Dana Hughes. “This event really encapsulates the message that refugees, given support, opportunity and encouragement, can thrive just like anyone else in the world.”

Established in the remote Turkana region in 1992 to serve Sudanese refugees, Kakuma Camp is now home to those displaced by wars across Africa. They come from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda.

Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya photographed for the air in 1993 (left) and in 2018 (right).

Among Saturday’s refugee speakers is former Kakuma resident Pur Biel, a 23-year-old Sudanese runner who arrived in the camp as child and later competed at Rio 2016 as part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Also speaking are Kakuma residents Mercy Akuot, a Sudanese social worker who strives to empower young women, and Aminah Rwimo, an international award-winning Congolese film-maker.

Kakuma resident Mercy Akuot fled South Sudan married off against her will to an elderly man.

“We have refugee speakers who have never spoken on this kind of a global platform before,” said co-organizer Dana Hughes. “They’ve really started to believe in themselves. It’s been incredible to watch them gain confidence to come to the point where they can share their stories on a world-class stage.”

The refugee speakers will be joined by an expert line-up of activists, models, actors, psychologists and economists, whose talks will explore innovative ways of tackling the refugee question.

“We’re going to bring this place which never receives much attention to the rest of the world.”

They will present to an audience of Kakuma residents and high-profile guests, including representatives of the Kenyan and foreign governments, the European Union and international NGOs. Outside, a screen will transmit the event live to 4,000 Kakuma residents, with a twin viewing area in Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya.

In another staggering feat of logistics, the TEDxKakumaCamp is to be beamed to live audiences around the world. A communications mast donated by the Kenyan mobile provider will provide a stream to viewing parties across the US, Latin America, Europe and Australia. Films of all speakers will later be made permanently available online.

“It’s stunning,” said Fleming, visibly moved, while standing on the stage for the first time. “There was nothing here before and now we’re going to bring this place which never receives much attention to the rest of the world.”

TEDxKakumaCamp will be the first TEDx event hosted in a refugee camp, with refugees, and also for refugees. It is curated by Melissa Fleming and Dana Hughes with support from UNHCR and volunteer teams.