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An economy grows among Somali refugees

Hussein Mohamud Heera stands in front of the goods he sells in his refugee-camp shop in Dadaab, Kenya.

PHOTO GALLERY: Life in the Dadaab, Kenya, refugee camp.

KAI RYSSDAL: The U.N.'s World Food Program says 200,000 Somalis have been cut off from humanitarian relief amid the fighting there. The U.S. has been going after Al Qaeda targets. And rebels have been trying to bring down the new Somali government.

Just across the border in Kenya, another 170,000 Somalis live in refugee camps. Camps that are supposed to be temporary. But most refugees have lived there for years, waiting for peace in Somalia.

Inside the camps, people balance dependence on aid with grassroots economic development. Gretchen Wilson reports now from camps in Kenya near the Somalia border.


GRETCHEN WILSON: It's only 9 in the morning, but already it's 104 degrees. Inside the Ifo refugee camp, men haul sacks of grain onto their shoulders and carry them to a distribution center surrounded by men and women squatting on the ground.

Inside, workers scoop dried corn from large wooden troughs. Twice a month, one person from each family stands in line to collect a few basic foods, such as lentils and cooking oil.

Usually, this kind of dependence is all most outsiders ever learn about refugee camps. But it's actually the beginning of a dynamic economy that operates on razor-thin margins.

At a restaurant in the camp, men sit at plastic tables and watch Al Jazeera News on satellite TV. Across the street, people check their e-mail and play video games online. Buildings here are made with twigs and plastic bags. And owners operate with the help of generators and cell phones.

Ambia Gure Ugassa is a single mother of six. Like everyone else here, she's not allowed to leave the camp to work.

AMBIA GURE UGASSA (voice of translator): There's a ban on our movement. I cannot do business. Our lives are so restricted because I'm 100 percent dependent on the food aid.

Like most refugees here, Ugassa barters a portion of her family's donated food. She trades dried corn to other refugees for about 10 cents a pound. With that, she'll buy things like pencils, so her kids can go to school.

Ali Adan Gaboubey has lived here for 15 years, and buys a little here, a little there. His stockpile of dried corn fills a tin-sided shack. By standards here, he's well-off.

ALI ADAN GABOUBEY (voice of translator): I get this by buying food from other refugees. I get small quantities. Some of them sell me a few pounds because they need other things.

He'll resell the corn later for cash. It's pure supply and demand.

GABOUBEY: I get the highest prices when there's a drought. Or when heavy rains make the roads impassable and the aid trucks can't get here.

Trading food sometimes means going hungry. There's a 22 percent malnutrition rate here, which aid workers call worse than an emergency. But a select few have created thriving businesses.

Ahmet Kamal crouches on the sand, making doors out of tin cans that once contained cooking oil donated by the U.S. Here, this is high-end construction.

AHMET KAMAL (voice of translator): I see the community needs this kind of door, and there's only a few of us making them.

At this Internet cafA© inside the camp, customers like Ahmed Codey surf the Web for 3 cents a minute.

AHMED CODEY (voice of translator): This helps me communicate with my relatives in the U.S. and back in Somalia. And I read about news and sports.

Over the years, the businesses have made the refugee camps the commercial hub for this entire region. These camps are on an illegal trade route from Somalia, where there's no government to tax imports. Goods from Dubai and beyond come into the camps on Somali trucks — and usually go out again with Kenyan merchants who come to these markets for the low prices.

Shop owner Hussein Mohamud Heera.

HUSSEIN MOHAMUD HEERA: Like milk, sugar, rice, everything. There's so many things that we receive from Somalia.

But the whole market system was thrown into disarray in January, when Kenya closed its border with Somalia, the source of these cheap goods.

HEERA: There's nothing come from Somalia now. The border is closed. Nobody can pass. There's no inlet and outlet.

WILSON: And that must affect your business.

HEERA: There's big effect. Mmmm. There's a big effect.

Kenyans even come into the camps with new business ideas. Ucien Muhammed, who's not a refugee, moved from a hundred miles away to offer international telephone calls by satellite.

UCIEN MUHAMMED: We came here for a job. We want to make money here from

. . .

Though refugees are still confined to the camps, they're becoming demanding customers. Owners of the Internet cafA© say customers want a digital camera so they can send pictures back home.

Inside the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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