01 September 2020

To the Light: The ‘Dream of a Refugee Boy’ in Kenya’s Kakuma Camp

Erjok “David” Makuei was one of the film students we met in Kakuma refugee camp, the place he’s called home for the past 23 years. Born in Kakuma, it’s the only home David has ever known. In addition to performing a personal spoken-word rap, he candidly revealed his life experiences and future goals, which extend far beyond the boundaries of Kakuma. 

David spoke in exceptional English, something he developed from years of watching Hollywood movies. “I would skip school and go watch movies timing the time to go home. I start imitating how the character’s talk, memorizing the characters lines, and then reciting them.” In addition to American pop culture references, his spoken-word highlighted the challenges he’s faced since his parents fled South Sudan during its second civil war. David’s mother was pregnant with him at the time.

His fearless openness and honesty set the stage for his poetry as he laced together various introspective thoughts to reveal an uncommon depth beneath his slender, tall frame. It’s a depth that’s seemingly endless as we heard David’s rap titled, “Dream of a Refugee Boy”. It’s hard to listen to his rhymes and not think that he can achieve each wish he confesses, despite the substantial obstacles in his way. “Growing up in Kakuma I didn’t realize that the outside world perceives us (refugees) differently. I only came to know that when I was a teenager.” Throughout his spoken-word, David’s large hands punctuated certain phrases, all while he remained calm and confident throughout his delivery. 

David’s introduction to this art form was prompted by his brother years ago. He told us, “I was heart-broken at the time and by then my brother had taught me how to write rap lyrics, how to use metaphors, rhyme. Hurting, I sat down and wrote.” David was then able to use creative metaphors and other techniques to enhance his writing and creatively express himself. David told us that after making a recording of his rap and sharing it with others, he realized that he had found his voice. “Being a refugee with a passion for telling stories, I choose to use it, to tackle the issues and tell refugee stories. That’s how I became a spoken word artist.”

David spoke of the strength of other refugees in Kakuma. He told us that there are many strong people there, all of whom have faced various levels of adversity and hardship. “You find fighters here,” he stated matter-of-factly. It is this quiet strength that helps both David and the other refugees endure an unpredictable fate. And while he has seen many grow old whose dreams have withered away with time, he also sees many young people like himself who long for a better future. 

He wants the world to know that refugees like him are more similar to other young people around the world than they are different; they have aspirations beyond what can be achieved in Kakuma. One of David’s dreams has been cultivated by the FilmAid organization, which has given him an opportunity to explore his interest in film and develop skills that could help him make money to support his family back home. In addition to film, David’s other interests include photography and radio. 

The connecting theme across these three creative mediums is telling stories. David, who was first introduced to documentary filmmaking on this trip, expressed a desire to tell the stories of people for the purpose of positive change, particularly those in his home country of South Sudan. “They need people like us,” he explained. David wants the world to see the personal side to refugees in order to better support them. He sees filmmaking as the perfect medium to achieve this. He explained, “By telling one story, I’m able to shine a light on that person, to bring them out of that darkness…and to the light.” 

David’s vision of what is possible surely inspires him to keep pushing forward. He highlighted the importance of continued education and stated with only a glimmer of frustration that if he was not in Kakuma, he would already have been finished with “university.” This past year, David took the leap to continue his education as he stepped out of Kakuma for the first time. He was surprised at how warmly he was welcomed by the non-refugee population, “Nobody even cares where I come from and I happened to fit in just fine.” David is studying Communications and wants to specialize in broadcasting with the hopes of being a news anchor or photojournalist, undoubtedly another way for him to tell stories.

On December 19th, 2018, David’s spoken word piece, “Dream of a Refugee Boy” won second place at the Global Migrant Festival poetry competition in Singapore. “It really made me happy for people to watch and listen to the words of ‘Dream of a Refugee Boy.’ David said the experience felt like a way for the world to finally hear from refugees and potentially perceive them differently. Clearly, the dreams of this “refugee boy” are already underway. “One day, I want to have my voice heard,” David explained. Others should want his voice to be heard, too. We certainly felt privileged to hear it.

We first met David during our trip to Kakuma in 2017. We were fortunate to reconnect with him again on our second trip in 2018. With the help of FilmAid, he and other Kakuma refugees were able to participate in our film class.