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Refugees Shine in First-Ever TEDx Event Held in a Refugee Camp

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, June 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Refugees turned poets, filmmakers, models, and teachers sought to shatter stereotypes and inspire a global audience on Saturday by sharing their stories of perseverance through suffering in the world's first TEDx event to be hosted in a refugee camp.

TEDx events — devoted to spreading ideas through short presentations covering everything from business and technology to environmental and humanitarian issues — are often broadcast live internationally and watched online by millions of viewers.

The United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR) said the event in Kakuma — a sprawling camp housing 185,000 people located in northern Kenya — aimed to shine a spotlight on the plight of refugees and challenge negative perceptions and stereotypes.

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"TEDx events are often in privileged settings, so we thought about bringing the power of the TED stage to a refugee camp," UNHCR's Melissa Fleming told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We wanted refugee speakers to use this platform to tell the world not just what they have gone through, but also show that they too have amazing things to offer."

There are at least 22 million refugees around the world, says the UNHCR, mostly fleeing conflict, persecution, or rights abuses in their countries. About 90% are being hosted in developing countries including Kenya in camps such as Kakuma.

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From a stage set up in a white tent in a school playground in Kakuma camp in Turkana county, the refugee speakers spoke of how war had forced them to leave their homes in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Somalia.

They discussed their struggles to restart their lives as refugees, their battles to fight cultural practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation, and their desire to return and rebuild their homeland.

The speakers included activist Riya William Yuyada, athlete Pur Biel and teacher Mary Nyiriak Maker from South Sudan, Congolese film maker Amina Rwino, and Sudanese poet Emi Mahmoud.

Somali American Halima Aden, an international fashion model who has featured on the covers of magazines such as Vogue, was born in Kakuma refugee camp and lived there for seven years.

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Aden, 20, said despite sometimes not having enough food to eat or being sick with malaria, she enjoyed a happy childhood.

Kakuma helped her gain a sense of community and respect for other cultures, Aden said, adding that she wanted to change the narrative of refugee camps as a place of despair.

"I want you to remember that although the children here are refugees, they are children," Aden said at the TEDx event.

"They deserve every opportunity to flourish, to hope, to dream, to be successful," she added. "My story began here in Kakuma refugee camp, a place of hope."

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit