A Walk in My Shoes: From Syria to Kenya

“The smell by the way is beyond amazing and you notice it before you even reach there and the moment you begin to see all the green you know you’re in Kericho and the green you are seeing is the famous Kenyan tea.”

The headlines about Kenya are typically negative or centre around development. Recent top news about Kenya presents the country as backward, whether describing dangerous and illegal abortions, a plea from President Uhuru to have the world better respect Kenya’s decisions or a recent oil and gas discovery that may help Kenya become a middle-income country by 2030.

For Saviona Tumaini, a 29-year-old Swede who has Kenyan roots, she did not begin her story with any of that. She started with a story of green farmland, the rain and her family.

She is a consultant based in Malmö, Sweden and the organisation leader of Kenya’s Msenangu Sweden. Saviona traveled back to Kenya this summer to work on the organisation and to reconnect with her father’s side of the family for the first time in her life.

“Spending some time with them and interacting with them made me realise how alike we are and that a lot of who I am comes from them.”

Between working with local people and communities through project-based work, such as healthcare, education and water security, she learned about her connection to it all.

“People have often described me as very calm, quiet and kind and that is exactly how I would describe these two amazing ladies [her grandmother and aunt in Kenya]. I was also given advice on my work in Kenya and how I could go about it in the future in order to do even better since they both have a lot more experience than I, I truly welcome all the advice they can give me.”

Listening and learning from Kenyans is key in order to do aid work. Saviona sees Kenya as defined by its people.

“We focus on local people and the communities where they live. They know better than anyone about the problems and what needs to be done. What we do is listen and act accordingly. Working alongside them helps a lot or just handing it over to them and simply providing the means and resources for them to help themselves. The goal is to avoid them becoming dependent and for us to not come there and think we know better.”

On hot summer afternoons, she would not only meet passerby in the streets, but strangers became friends and friends became family.

“What other country has so many ways to greet each other as Kenya? It’s a beautiful thing when you meet someone and you don’t just say hello and move on, you start a whole conversation with them and I often found myself going to all sorts of events and visiting homes, being invited to all sorts of fun things just because you spoke to someone on the street.”

“You don’t even have to know them well in the beginning and what you’re left with is a new friend/friends. You end up knowing the whole life story of a person.”

If a young woman can discover Kenya for herself, can foreign aid workers and the media do the same?

“It has been too easy for the aid to be used for anything but what it was intended [and] all you almost ever hear in the media as per usual is negativity in over load. The terrorism and the fight against Al Shabaab, the refugee camps, the schools being burned down, the kidnappings. The countless warnings on visiting certain parts of the country. This could scare anyone from going there…”

Although, Saviona concedes: the media representation is “partially true” and some of the foreign aid does relevant and accountable work for roads, schools, health care and more. In sum, she says that, “Of course Kenya has many problems but there are also many positive aspects and it is not as bad as portrayed but that is true of most places.”

“In Kenya you have to be strong in order to survive. You rely mostly on your family and what you can contribute to it. Families there are very close and come first. There’s not enough words to describe how important it is.”

For Kenya to progress, Saviona uses one word to describe how Kenyans can do better. To her, they must be more, “selfless.” If the focus is on the family, they must remember the whole community. During her visit, Saviona recognised how Kenyan women are an example of selflessness.

Saviona notes that, “the women carry the country, and without them Kenya would fall apart”

“Unfortunately they are not given the respect they deserve. They do most of the work and hardly ever get credit for it. Yet you will almost never hear them complain, they do what they need to do for the benefit of the family. I stayed with many local families when I was in Kenya, in the slum areas and rural areas.”

“I worked alongside these women and I can tell you from experience it was exhausting and way too much for a person to do yet these women do it every day, their whole lives. Waking up very early to prepare breakfast and clean and wash clothes by hand, then go to the shamba to do their farming whilst carrying small children on their backs and the other children accompanying to learn from the mother, they fetch water, they prepare dinner…everything is done from scratch, of the women who also had other jobs, they still did the same amount of work in the homes meaning getting up extra early to do half of their home duties then heading off to their work places (ex. shops, salons, insurance agencies, schools, daycares etc.) then coming home to their work continues with the other half of their home duties including taking care of the shambas.”

The ability to survive is a skill all-too familiar to others in the developing world. From Syria, Salim Salama, a 27- year-old Palestinian-Syrian activist, public speaker and student, is one of millions who had to flee during the current refugee crisis.

“Whenever I am talking to an audience, I say, ‘Whatever you hear about Syria is propaganda, including this lecture, so do not at any moment be fooled by anyone telling you: ‘This is what’s going on’ or ‘This is how you should react’ or ‘This is how you can help.’ What I can tell you and what I can offer you from my obligation to deliver something on this, is to tell you that you need to be critical toward everything.”

Kenya and Syria are widely misinterpreted in the news. Countries in the developing world are written off as fodder for entertainment. Insiders like Saviona and Salim humanise these misunderstood countries.

In Salim’s opinion, the violence is on such a grand scale and so many Syrians conceptualise the situation differently, that Syria is even difficult for him to describe.

“In my family, a lot of people don’t really care about what is going on in Syria and they go about their lives in exile as if they were just forced to leave their home or city because of a natural disaster. So, they move on. For others, it’s not the same. For me, it’s not the same. For me, it’s not about ‘natural disasters.’ It’s about political violence, and violence that we need to expose.”

For his young generation, a lot of youth have taken it upon themselves to become activists, but, at first, it was an uphill struggle.

“Acceptance is something we learn the very hard way because for the first three years of the Syrian War we always resisted the fact that it was happening to us—and this is classical in the case of mass violence and mass atrocities that you refuse to admit the fact that you are being subjected to this. Bit by bit you are consumed into the eye of the storm and you become a part of the storm.”

Salim is now based in Sweden and studies International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö University.

Meanwhile, he is a part of the Palestinian League for Human Rights, Syria (PLHR) and the United Nations’ Advisory Group of Experts for the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security.

“There is a quote, ‘Intellectuals never make revolutions, but revolutions make intellectuals.’ I think I belong to this generation of young activists who were made by Syria. Today we are in Europe and we are the important people we are because of Syria, because of the half a million Syrians who died, because of the millions of people who are internally displaced, because of the 5 million refugees scattered around, and the thousands that died in the Mediterranean. One should be sentimental sometimes, but without being extremely sentimental there is a lot of pain and a lot of disappointments and a lot of failures on personal and collective levels. Also, it is a very hard listen about what happens when you neglect for a generation essential questions for the nation such as democracy and liberty and rule of law and transparency and justice. ”

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The questions of liberty, justice and freedom are what activists want to answer. In the meantime, Salim feels the urgency behind such philosophical questions. Whether or not they are answered means life or death.

“I think the country’s duty toward its citizens is to not be the reason for their death. I don’t think that there is any cause in the world that should bring death. Death for a cause is an underestimation of the preciousness of life. First and foremost, a country that needs its people to die for it is a country that is not worth these lives. This might sound very, very radical and ungrateful, but I think we should always be ungrateful when it comes to death. I think we should not die for anything.”

He and his colleagues keep a balance of ‘patience’ and ‘self-consciousness.’ They will keep working against the swell of setbacks and they will constantly reevaluate their work at the same time. Saviona and Salim work with intention even if their governments are dysfunctional, even if most of the international community works at a glacial pace. Frustration and impatience do not deter them. Though, the most difficult aspect about Salim’s work is the fact that people are dying despite everyone’s best efforts.

“Our work is important and I don’t question its importance, but, on a personal level, I can’t help but have some sort of cynicism every once in a while. I question whether what we are doing is changing the status quo. No matter how much you achieve in the light of the brutality and the unfolding madness, it seems all very irrelevant.”

He will work with major political players, even those he disagrees with, and he will continue his activism, even if he thinks it is futile at times. His goal is a peaceful Syria and he has that do-what-whatever-it-takes attitude that gets recognised. But he knows he can’t do it all. Looking beyond his own work, he sees that foreign aid is critically important to solving Syria.

“The foreign aid system most of the time approaches the question of Syria from the perspective of a humanitarian crisis. When you approach an issue from the angle of a humanitarian crisis or a natural disaster, then you are providing in order to contain the crisis and in order to close the gap caused by this crisis. When you don’t recognise the fact that there are political reasons within the crisis, then you are doing nothing but filling holes while other holes are being made.”

Salim was once quoted remarking that “the UN is Member States and Member States have failed to protect civilians.”

The approach has to be unified, yet Syria is a proxy war and proxy wars, by nature, have many vested interests. Going forward, solving the conflict and rebuilding the country depends on the very collaboration and implementation of international power that is tied to its own motivations. Salim reflects on this power and how the Syrian people must be acknowledged for aid to work.

“What we need is more sympathy, more openmindedness, more acknowledgment of their limitations as foreign aid workers in order to understand the complexities in which Syrians operate. Based on that acknowledgement, recognise the need of locals as a people’s experience and as people who have went through an experience, as people who are, even now, living that experience. Everything from the design to the implementation of aid, must acknowledge and reflect the people.”

Salim keeps his family and mentors close through this crisis. They teach him and remind him patience in a dire time. For him and Saviona, whether it is mass violence in Syria or gender issues in Kenya, they carry the weight of their countries’ futures while still learning from their elders since, after all, they are still young. Yet their youth, its insistence, its fervour, its openness, is what makes revolutions and social change possible. If revolutions make intellectuals, then they weren’t intellectuals prior to the revolution; they were crazy, fool-hardy youth.

They stand up against issues not even the United Nations can solve, yet they try again and again. If not them, who else?

Mariah Katz

Salim’s blog is ‘www.salimsalamah.com’ //Saviona’s Facebook is ‘Msenangu Sweden’