Just before sunset, Dadaab’s unforgiving landscape is transformed into football pitches and volleyball courts. And for a few hours a day, laughter and joy penetrate the air in Ifo 2 refugee camp.
Players arrive an hour before the match to prepare the fields. They draw lines in the sand that serve as the boundaries for the pitch, removing thorny branches, large rocks and any other obstacles. After a few minutes of play, however, gusts of wind erase the lines. That is where spectators come in, doing double duty as supporters and linesmen.
They wear the jerseys of their favorite teams and have nicknames based on characteristics of professional footballers. Hamza Ali, considered the fastest player on his team, is known as ‘Messi’ and Abdi Abdikadir, 17, easily identified by his tall, lanky frame is ‘Crouch’.
“A lot of people think refugee life is only suffering and hopelessness. We came from our country to seek a new life. Many of us are talented but no one sees,” says Hamza.
They are completely comfortable playing barefoot on the sandy, gravelly pitch – most have never played on grass. ‘I play better without shoes. That is what we tell ourselves because we have no alternative,’ says 20-year-old Abshir Mohammed with a laugh. He immediately tosses his sandals aside and begins juggling the ball. His nickname now makes sense: ‘Ronaldinho’.
‘When we play, it’s just us and the ball. The only thing we worry about is getting it between the goal. When we play, there is no refugee, no hunger, no thirst. Just happiness.’ Mahad, 17.
A few miles away, on the eastern side of the camp, South Sudanese refugees string up a volleyball net on two wooden posts. Teams are inclusive with male and female players and coaches.
Rachel Biel is easily the best player on her team. She arrived in Dadaab with her family after fleeing the conflict in South Sudan. ‘We play to forget the war and to come together as a community.’
Nyabhan Doyak is the team captain and was chosen because of her dedication to her community and the sport. She is currently on a quest to get uniforms for the teams. Volleyball is how she keeps busy. ‘Everyone has a story of loss. There is not one person who has not lost someone to the war. But we cannot focus only on the loss. This is how we build our life here. It gives us hope.’
Find more photos of Dadaab on Instagram @farahkhad