Yvonne Ndege, a renowned journalist talks of her passion to find solutions for refugeesTirus Wainaina
Yvonne Ndege, a renowned British television journalist has recently joined the UNHCR team in Kenya as a communication specialist. She is determined to apply her great deal of media experience to highlight refugees’ stories. In an interview with her, she explains her professional journey in the media and her passion to find solutions for refugees.
Tell us about your transition from mainstream journalism to doing communication work in UNHCR?
Joining UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency in Kenya as Head of Communications was a very natural transition from journalism. During my 18-year career at the BBC in the UK, and Al Jazeera across Africa and Europe, as a television Correspondent, Presenter and Host, I spent a lot of time covering refugees and internally displaced people in Kenya, the region, Nigeria, Africa, and Europe, around the Mediterranean Sea refugee crisis. Therefore, I felt very conversant with the work of UNHCR, and the issues facing refugees and displaced persons all over the world. It’s not been difficult.
What drives you?
Storytelling is my passion. I joined UNHCR as I saw it as an opportunity to focus on my passion and on an issue that I care about, refugees, displaced people, people forced to leave home due to war, violence and instability. In Kenya alone there are nearly half a million refugees. That’s half a million individual personal stories I saw as an opportunity to tell. I am driven by the opportunity to change things for individuals and groups of people, for the better through storytelling. In this case, and in this job, refugees. I am also driven by my daughter Safari. Most refugees are small children or under-age. At the back of my mind I always think about children caught up in displacement crisis. Having a child, myself I am driven to find solutions for them through my work and through storytelling.
How do you like to motivate young refugees hoping to make careers in journalism?
Wow. That’s a big question. It’s a good question. Well firstly, I know that there are lots of journalists who have ended up being refugees. They are still journalists. Absolutely they ought to be given the opportunity to still practice journalism. Hopefully they are in a position to motivate young refugees in their midst who want to pursue careers in media. I would encourage all budding refugee journalists and wanna-be refugee journalists to start! Get on platforms that allow storytelling – there are so many – I would say blogging and the use of social media platforms works. Refugees can also consider starting the practice of journalism where they are. Telling the stories of the people around them, through text messages, community radio and video. You don’t need an office; a phone is enough. Have some drive, self-belief and determination. That’s it.
How many refugees and asylum seekers are there in Kenya now? Are some of them voluntarily returning home?
There are currently nearly half a million refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya. The exact number is 488,698 as of the end of September 2017. There is a voluntary repatriation programme for refugees who want to return to Somalia. Since the programme began – in December 2014, 73,614 have voluntarily returned home, of which 32,189 have returned this year. We constantly update information about refugees on our website www.unhcr.org/ke and on our social media pages. I also share a lot information about the work of UNHCR Kenya and refugee issues globally on my personal Twitter feed – @YvonneNdege
How do you view the partnership between UNHCR and the Government of Kenya in finding solutions for refugees?
UNHCR works closely with the Government of Kenya to find long-term solutions for refugees living in Kenya. One of the key things we’re working on is how to integrate them locally. The Government of Kenya supports what’s called the ‘Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework’. In a nutshell, it promotes the idea that refugees should be integrated as much as possible where they are – until they can return home – until solutions are found. That means giving them certain rights and freedoms, such as the ability to work or run a business. We are pleased that the Government of Kenya recognizes that refugees can be a positive contribution to the Kenyan economy and society, and has voiced its support for the framework. I believe several things will be put into action to show the government’s commitment to helping refugees and finding long term solutions.
Share with us some key things that UNHCR Kenya is currently involved in, that are aimed at improving livelihoods for refugees.
There are several exciting projects at UNHCR Kenya. One of them is the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement in Turkana County, where refugees and locals live side by side and get the same public services. Another one is “Artists for Refugees”, a refugees’ arts and music empowerment project that promotes music and arts talent among refugees.
In this project, talented refugees get trained on how to develop income out of their talents.
One music album has already been produced involving young musicians from refugee camps for whom musical concerts are organized.
We are also working with athletics experts to nurture athletics talent among refugees. This project aims to create opportunities for talented refugee sportsmen and sportswomen. We aim to develop their ability to participate in sports activities and to be able to compete locally and internationally. Since the installation of the project in 2016, some refugee athletes have successfully been facilitated to participate in international sporting events including the 2016 Rio Olympics and the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London.
UNHCR is leading other UN agencies and partners in a project aimed at promoting development models around refugee settlements in Kenya. What is the progress with the project and what impact is it making to people living in and around refugee camps?
Yes. That’s the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement project in Turkana County I mentioned above. It’s truly exciting. It’s basically formalizing what has already been happening in Kenya for years. People socializing, doing business together, intermarrying and living as a community. That is what has been happening between refugees and Kenyan citizens for decades.
There has however been a gap in having refugees and locals share social amenities and public services such as hospitals and schools. That is where this great partnership between the Government of Kenya and UNHCR together with its partners come in. The partners are drawn from local governments, other UN agencies and the private sector. Eventually, refugees and Kenyan locals commonly referred to as “host community” will get to share such services. They will interact and live as one community like it would be in any city across Kenya. This is great for creating social cohesion and a sense of community; it’s of great benefit to the local economy.