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Out of Africa

A Richmond woman travels to a Kenyan refugee camp to make a hometown connection.


Faries' role there was simple: to interview families and children seeking asylum from their troubled homelands and study the process of relocating them. But her mission, once carried out, was far more complicated.

With the help of an interpreter, Faries interviewed 220 African refugees in three- and-a-half weeks to learn what caused them to flee their countries and to understand the relationships that survived the escape. In particular, she surveyed members of two Somali tribes that had been persecuted in their homelands to determine potential placement outside of the camp in harboring countries.

She describes the work as detailed and intense. "I almost cried when one had 23 siblings and he knew all their names," Faries recalls. The names were testament to survival. "I was interviewing families that had been tortured," she says. "They all had horror stories to tell" of pain and suffering and the nearest of escapes.

Amid the languishing chaos of the camp, Faries launched another more personal pursuit. She sought to track down relatives of some of the refugee children who are in Commonwealth Catholic Charities' unaccompanied minors program — the only one for parentless refugee youth in Virginia — which is headquartered in Richmond. Since 1982, more than 700 children have been pulled from refugee camps in Africa and placed in foster care or elsewhere within the community.

With limited means of communication, some family members in Africa have had little or no contact with their children since arriving in the United States, Faries says. Conversely, the relocated youth have almost no information regarding the status of their families in Africa.

A white, soft-spoken, middle-aged woman from Richmond, Faries stands out in Kakuma. The relatives she so desperately sought did not. But she knew she had important news to share: that after five years in United States, Michael Chapa is thriving at Virginia Intermont College and is an accomplished track star; that Gabriel Manyang Aluong is studying at Virginia Commonwealth University to become a physician.

"It's very much like a needle in a haystack," Faries says of finding the right families to whom her message matters.

It's easy to see why. Kakuma is one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in the world, encompassing five miles or so of densely populated desert. Its inhabitants come from at least nine different countries and represent multiple ethnic groups. They suffer from poor relations with the indigenous and aggressive Turkana tribe that live in the region, an utter lack of economic opportunity, and unending food shortages. Inside the camp, sexual and domestic violence is common. And then there's the constant threat of attack from outside forces, such as the Turkana. A staff of 60 or so international aid workers resides on a compound where razor wire outlines the perimeter like holiday lights, Faries says. Aid workers must remain inside the compound from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for their own safety.

The refugees, however, are used to the state of perpetual limbo. They continue to build their own mud huts and receive their standard two food rations of grain each month. Few believe that they will be able to return to their native countries.

Amid the idleness, Faries found something extraordinary — and familiar. Having conducted her interviews for the UNHCR, on the last day and a half of her month-long trip, she turned her attention exclusively to locating families she believed had children now in the states. Most are boys, she says, explaining that boys more readily survive the camps than girls.

Sweating and dusty, Faries relied on the best information she could while traveling from one end of Kakuma to the next with pictures of her "lost boys," asking: "Do you know this person?"

To her surprise, she discovered she knew them. "It was amazing to me," she says. "I recognized them. I literally recognized them," she says of finding Chapa's family and Aluong's, and a few others.

Her first needle was Aluong's oldest sister, Amore. Faries shows a reporter a picture of a 34-year-old Sudanese woman smiling, a child at her heels. She is 34. Her parents were killed and she raised her five younger siblings. Two of her sisters still live at Kakuma, but the three brothers, including Gabriel, now live in the United States.

"She was just thrilled," Faries says of Amore's reaction to pictures of her brothers. Neither the brothers here, nor the sisters there, knew of each others' whereabouts or even if they were alive.

"She is the first one to see my sisters," Gabriel Aluong says. Aluong, 23, has been in Virginia for five years, works at Ukrop's and is studying biology at Virginia Commonwealth University with plans to attend medical school. Someday he might return to Africa, he says. "What I see in her work I can't say enough about," he says of Faries. "She understands it was very important to me that she make that connection." S

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