In May 2016, while I was carrying out ethnographic research in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, a Form 4 (12th grade) history teacher asked me if I would teach his students about U.S. democracy. We flipped through the history and government textbook to one of the last chapters where the national curriculum outlined political systems in Kenya, England, India, and the United States. It was a peculiar moment to put the U.S. democratic system on display.
Students wanted to know about the differences between Republicans and Democrats, which was the “better party,” who I supported, and why people identified so strongly with these groups, which were neither religious nor ethnic. One student explained, “Here in Kenya, it is by the way of the tribal identity. . . . Politics is always about voting for your people.” Though most of these students were refugees not born in Kenya, it was not only the upcoming presidential elections in Kenya that concerned them. They understood well that U.S. politics would impact their opportunities in exile, as well as their prospects for resettlement, though at the time we had not realized how immediate and far-reaching those impacts would be.
As I listened to students reflect on the extensive news coverage of Trump’s candidacy — and their impressions that his following was growing not only within the United States but also across Kenya and the camp — I naively predicted aloud that Trump would “never be elected” and hoped that these were words of comfort to them. Instead, I was met with regretful looks, as well as sighs of relief. Looking out at the more than 100 faces in the classroom, largely refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia, with smaller numbers of Kenyan nationals (from the host community), Ethiopian, and Congolese refugees, I realized how many assumptions I had made about how Trump would be received by youth in Kakuma. In the months preceding the U.S. presidential elections, young people routinely smirked while asking me, “What is this about Trump?” Initially, I had assumed that they, too, were collectively troubled by the inflammatory things the candidate had said about Muslims and immigrants who, in Trump’s view, exploited U.S. opportunities for their own gains. But young people’s views — shaped by experiences with protracted armed conflict, political fragility, and in some cases violent recruitment by radical groups — were far more complicated.
Many young people understood that Trump had the power to “incite,” a dangerous word associated with the outbreak of tribal violence that followed Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. And for them, Trump’s popular support signified the dangers of xenophobia, nativism, and other expressions of social hierarchy that erupted into identity-based violence in their countries of origin, with devastating consequences. For others, Trump’s stated priorities of security, vigilance, and economic nationalism enticed and reassured them, even as youth selectively tuned out the nativism mobilizing these views.
In March 2017 when I returned to Kakuma, students were quick to remind me that I had been wrong about Trump. He had won. And though his executive orders were still tied up in court, the U.N. office had put all resettlement cases on hold, not only those pertaining to Somalis and Sudanese (two of the original seven countries banned). The hundreds of refugee families waiting outside the office gate every day had thinned, as few people bothered to follow up on their “process.” Yet every Friday, Bakri, an Ethiopian who had lived in Kakuma for more than a decade, continued to check the notice boards where resettlement news was posted in hopes that something would change. “It is a habit,” he explained, but he also knew it was more than that. He once described the walk to the board as the best part of his week because he allowed himself the freedom to daydream about what life could be like elsewhere.
In the immediate aftermath of the travel ban, U.S. media coverage highlighted the distress of well-deserving refugees who had suffered in their country of origin and waited patiently in exile for their chance to begin a new life in the United States. In Kenya, they had been transported from Dadaab or Kakuma to Nairobi, after selling or giving away their possessions and in some cases their homes and businesses, leaving everything they had accumulated in the camp behind. Their vacant stares became the human reminder of the lives Trump’s travel ban put on hold, the families divided, and the risks asylum seekers faced even in settings of refuge.
In Kakuma, the effects of the proposed travel ban were immediate. Families that had been “in process” for months or even years now waited for the U.N. to resume resettlement cases. As Ameena (Somali) turned 19 and began 7th grade in Kakuma, she wondered whether she would be allowed to enroll in a U.S. school if and when she was resettled. Last year, amidst a spike in violence toward Somali refugees in the camp, Ameena, her mother, and sister were raped. In addition to fearing that their attacker might find them again, Ameena explained how she struggled to concentrate at school, how her friends distanced themselves from her, and how her reputation in the camp had been tarnished. “People stare, and they point at me. . . . They say she is the one, she is the one who was raped. . . . No one will marry me. My future here is —.” Her mother clapped loudly, to signal the abrupt end to Ameena’s future prospects in the camp. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR’s) “durable solutions” envisioned for refugees’ long-term futures had narrowed for Ameena and her family: integration in Kenya was no longer socially feasible or secure. They could not repatriate to Somalia, where Ameena’s father was targeted by Al Shabaab, and where her brother would likely be recruited. Facing protection issues even in the refugee camp, the only life they saw for themselves was one that entailed resettlement and a chance to start over — promises made to them before President Trump took office, when UNHCR began to document their need for their immediate asylum.
The effects of Trump’s presidency are actually even more wide-reaching than the U.S. travel ban — and the risks and disappointments individuals like Ameena face as their cases are put on hold indefinitely. Most of the students I interacted with over the course of a multiyear study set in Kakuma would never see their identity numbers posted on the camp notice boards; Trump’s ban made the slim chance of resettlement even slimmer. But if we only focus on these individual stories — painful as they are — we limit our scope to a resettlement policy that impacts less than 1 percent of refugees globally. Ameena’s classmates remind us that we need to broaden our gaze to the vast majority of forced migrants whose prospects fall to neighboring host countries other than the United States, in many cases under-resourced and heavily reliant on global aid.
For those in exile, the consequence of “the era of Trump” extends further. As U.N. budgets are drastically reduced due to Trump’s proposed cuts, consequences have been felt immediately in the everyday conditions of congested classrooms where hundreds of students crowd along benches and the floor for a glimpse at their teacher. The sight of children lining up outside classroom windows for a chance to learn is enough to turn some families away from school. Existing resource constraints, now intensified, also make it unmanageable for UNHCR to transition the nearly 37,000 students completing primary school into the five secondary schools in Kakuma. Together, these constraints make postsecondary education a near impossibility. They also drive increased discrimination and violence within refugee communities, enforcing presumed links between refugees, Islam, and terrorism. As U.S. policies turn further inward during a time of unprecedented global migration, Trump’s travel ban should remind us of both the urgency of welcoming displaced populations within our borders, and the wide-reaching, lived effects of U.S. foreign policy decisions that extend far beyond what we can see from here.
Michelle J. Bellino is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education and co-director of the Conflict and Peace Initiative. She can be reached at michellejbellino.com. This article was part of a larger effort, “The Election, One Year Later: Stories from Anthropologists of Education,” that can be found at tolerance.org.
Illustrator Katherine Streeter’s work can be found at katherinestreeter.com.