For years, I existed to the world as a number on a piece of paper. A block of ink coded into a computer. A statistic that regulated the dispersal of rations and care I received. This was my only verifiable identity while I was a refugee in Kenya.
Near the Liboi border, my family waited in line with the heat of the sun on our backs. Six hours passed before we advanced in line enough to enter one of the makeshift offices of the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees. An officer sat before us at an old wooden desk. “Mohamed?” she asked. No one answered. She told us nearly every male Somali is called Mohamed or Abdi. My father smiled patiently. My brother, Abdirizak, was waiting outside. Then she asked us for our story.
What was my father supposed to say? Was he to tell her about the successful livestock export business he established to better feed our community, or skip to the part where a revolutionary’s mortar shell destroyed our neighbor’s home? Was he to tell her about his children’s days of paradise on the white beaches of Muqdishu, or how he had to dream himself awake during what could have been the last precious moments we had together on the caravan fleeing the last camp?
Life was conditional at the Dadaab refugee camp. There was such a thing as a wrong story.
Still, today, I often find myself wondering which is the right story to tell.
When my father spoke again to the officer, I took note of what he said. He shared as little as necessary to make a story that would never be whole seem neat and complete.
She gave us each a piece of paper with a unique number printed on it. We would no longer be known by our names. When collecting food rations, we used our number. When applying for alien identity cards, we used our number. No one bothered to learn who we were, or what we left behind, or what kept us moving forward. We had become a few more numbers adding to a growing population of white tents settled across many acres of desert land.
I was filled with anticipation of my new life. In Dadaab, I was no longer Hamse. I became one of the first people who would come to call the camp home. Later, millions of refugees would join me. I felt almost like a pioneer, striking out in a new land. Everything was new. Everything was different. My new identity, my number, was everything. If I were to lose that piece of paper, I would cease to exist in my new world. But somehow, I didn’t mind that thought.
The core of an identity is so much more than a name, a number, or a family history communicated in brief sentences to an aid officer. It’s thousands of interactions and transactions. Relationships built in communities, across borders, and over a lifetime. Experiencing the duality of my intrinsic identity, vast and powerful, contrasted with my external identity, a nameless number receiving daily rations, implanted a profound appreciation of the core components of identity. I came to appreciate its depth as well as how much can be lost when one takes on the new identity of a refugee. The stories and interactions of my life led me to co-found a technology company called BanQu.
The problem we are solving is the complete socio-economic exclusion of 2.5 billion people who are unbanked/under banked including the 67 million refugees and displaced persons.
In the developed world, having a national or state ID or utility bill can serve as proof of your identity and your economic history, sending signals that can allow banks to readily build a credit profile. Imagine if you were forced to flee your home and had to live in a refugee camp like I was in Dadaab refugee camp. You have no identification, no academic credentials, no proof of creditworthiness, and no assets.
Today, as the case was for me 22 years ago, a refugee’s identity is reduced to a registration number/ID tag that allows him/her to get daily rations. A refugee’s status is not transient and the average stay for a refugee in a camp is 17 years. This long duration of economic exclusion is compounded by high poverty settings that refugees live in, given that 90% of refugees come from regions considered economically less developed. The problem is getting worse, with the number of refugees increasing at historically unprecedented rates, making the provision of emergency aid and livelihood opportunities by concerned organizations a formidable challenge. At BanQu, we are determined to change that in partnership with public and private sector partners.