The Quiet Refugee Girl

There seems to be an age at which refugee girls grow quiet. Toddlers tend to chatter unreservedly and reach up to touch my unfamiliar hair; older girls will ask to play with my camera and giggle when their faces appear on the screen. But by the time they reach eleven or twelve, most of the refugee girls I’ve met have grown still and shy, holding their arms drawn into themselves in a way that seems protective and uncertain.

Maybe such a transformation shouldn’t be surprising—plenty of kids become awkward or withdrawn around puberty. However, it is hard not to wonder what might lie behind the particular reticence of a refugee girl. Perhaps she has already been exposed to the sexual violence that haunts many refugee women. Perhaps she struggles with memories of the conflict she left behind. Maybe the grueling work of caring for younger siblings or supporting an ailing parent is overwhelming her. Maybe it’s all of those things. There’s certainly no shortage of reasons why a refugee girl in Nairobi would want to make herself invisible.

Even so, I’ve spent enough time with a few refugee girls to get past the barriers they throw up. And if you can get them talking, what these girls have to say is often stunning in its ambition. Many already know what they want to be when they grow up, and—in spite of deeply ingrained gender roles—it’s not solely to be a wife and mother. Several girls have told me they want to become lawyers focusing on refugee policy. Others say they want to be a nurse, or a doctor. One girl told me she wanted to become the kind of professor who “studies problems we all have here and decides how to fix them.”

It’s hard not to see in these girls’ dreams their desperate desire for power and agency, for the ability to control their own lives. Their families’ identities have been defined in part by the strictures of international accords—and so they want to become the people in charge of writing those laws. Their parents’ medical problems led the whole family to poverty—and so they hope to cure them. Their communities have been ravaged for decades by war and corruption, famine and drought, the twin plagues of AIDS and sexual violence—and so they long to know everything there is to know about those problems, in the hopes that they might solve them. To me, the lofty goals refugee girls construct for their futures are a poignant reminder of the instability of their present.

Still, I’m always impressed by the defiant confidence of these ambitions. It’s true that the likelihood of a refugee girl becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or an academic is incredibly slim—though RefugePoint clients (like Edith and Yar) are among those who prove it is possible. But refugee girls won’t give up hope just because the odds are stacked against them, and neither should we. We should work harder as an international community to help these young girls realize their dreams.