View Posts By:

Urban Refugees: Living in Cities, Connected to Camps


Essey Workie PhotoEssey Workie is a Refugee Health Team Lead in the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Administration for Children and Families. She is currently in Nairobi, Kenya, participating in an International Experience and Technical Assistance training program provided by Center for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While learning about refugee health, Workie agreed to share her experiences from inside refugee communities with The Family Room blog.

By Essey Workie

What amazes me most is the power of the human spirit. What would you do if your life was in danger and you had to leave everything behind in an instant? 

Many refugees are finding their way to urban areas instead of overcrowded camps. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, nearly half of the world’s 10.5 million refugees live in urban areas like Nairobi, Kenya. Cities bring with them the hope of making a living, getting an education for their children and accessing better medical care.

As many as 100,000 refugees live in Nairobi. Most reside in an area known as Eastleigh, or Little Mogadishu. Eastleigh is a major shoppingRefugee woman in a market selling her product. district. From what I have seen, urban refugees seem to have a knack for developing small businesses, like the woman in the photograph preparing to sell chicken. I met another young woman who sells coffee to the construction workers, tailors and other entrepreneurs. She plans to expand her business as soon as the cooking herbs she has planted grow to a marketable size.

Altogether, refugees have contributed millions of shillings (Kenyan currency) to the local economy. The trade routes established by refugees go beyond Nairobi into the two camp sites – Dadaab in the east and Kakuma in the northwest. The Somali, Ethiopian and Congolese refugees I met explained that the trade routes make this triangular pattern among Dadaab, Nairobi and Kakuma because many urban refugees have family members and friends living in the camps. These business and familial connections make Nairobi an important piece of the puzzle when thinking about refugee health in Kenya. 

Urban refugees and their relationships with camp-based refugees build another layer of complexity in refugee health and makes systematic surveillance of communicable diseases across urban and camp settings critical. During my four weeks here, I’ve learned about the many projects CDC-Kenya is engaged in to promote refugee health:

• Ongoing surveillance work in both camps and screens for diarrheal and respiratory illnesses
• Health Utilization Survey that focuses on urban refugees in North Eastleigh
• Urban Health Forums where key refugee health service providers come together to build synergy

As I look into my imaginary crystal ball, the next step seems to be linking the health data between urban refugees and camp-based refugees. This integrated look at surveillance data would highlight any developing trends quickly so that early interventions in public health are possible.

Back to Top