The Cognitive Landscape of a Refugee Camp. Conversation part I

We live in time and space, and orient ourselves to the reality around us by perpetually creating our point of existence along these axes. The experience of cognitive freedom is fundamentally tied to our perceived ability to navigate ourselves along these continua as independent beings... 



by Bethany Ojalehto

In refugee camps, the confinement and pervasive violation of human rights alters the relevance of time and space to daily life and challenges the individual to inhabit a dramatically different set of experiential parameters. As human rights are defined in a legal framework, human rights abuses are typically documented in the legal sense. But the experience of encamped refugees suggests that it may also be possible to document human rights abuses in the cognitive-psychological sense. The actual human experience of rights their violation or protectionóis a subtle and nonlinear constellation. These constellations gradually emerged and became thinkable to me during the course of my sixteen months living, working, and researching among East African refugees living in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. With the support of a Fulbright fellowship, I interviewed 25 Ethiopian refugees who had lived in Kakuma for many years, inquiring about their experiences of space and time in the refugee camp. This is what has begun to emerge from those conversations.


Space is measured in units of distance, coordinates of location, physicality and boundary. The porousness of a place —its amenability to human intention and freedom of movement—has a direct bearing on the experience of those within. Many refugees emphasize the limits of place in impacting their thinking. 'Your mind [is] thinking but not much. The level of thinking is limited. It's not broad. Limited, you know? The environment is limited.'  When asked about their perceptions of space, Ethiopian refugees often speak of imprisonment and a sense of being 'stored away'. They talk about a sense of confinement in trying to 'make human life work'. They speak of space crashing, roofs on their dreams, limitations to seeing and thinking. 'You see, my space has crashed. Like my thinking space now, my dream space'. Some refugees feel that the confined spaces of the camp limit their imagination and the generation of new ideas. 'I can't, you know, initiate. I can't spontaneously woke up in the morning and dream about new things'.  Some refugees see their experience of space and their range of thinking as intimately tied, even inseparable. For example, one Ethiopian man equated the spatial confinement to 'fields of thinking' and explained how encampment has altered his thoughts and perceptions. 'There is no hole you have to pierce between, through the wall, through the roof. But there is a roof that you cannot see beyond, but you have to live within the roof. And then you have to dream within the roof.'  The perceptual offerings of the camp environment feed into this cognitive experience. After explaining how Nairobi offers the stimulation of urban life that Kakuma lacks, one refugee explicitly links his visible surroundings and thoughts. 'You see, and then you think. And then you see, you ask yourself, what I am? What am I doing? You ask yourself a question. And you try to find answers. Then your mind will work itself at it...And when I come back to Kakuma and the way I think is quite different!'  Space is realized through the experience of mobility, going through places, identity and belonging. Refugees who are warehoused in camps do not enjoy freedom of movement; the right to choose freely where to live; many do not have proper identification documents. These rights violations redefine the space of the refugee —the physical and geographical landscape which the person can traverse; an individual's point in the geopolitical matrices of citizen and rights-holder; their daily reality in the sand, dust, mud huts, and scorching barren desert. The encampment of refugees not only alters their spatial experience by restricting them to a severely closed and limited physical place— it also demands a new perception of the world as a place off limits, and the acceptance of the refugee camp as the space for one's daily existence. 'Then you will wonder, am I detached from this world? What am I? The only connection that you have with the world is getting food and some other services.'


Time is typically counted in minutes, hours, days, and conventional units of shared societal activityóthe work day, the weekend, holidays and seasons. But in the camp, time is experienced very differently. Deprived of self-determination and the right to seek employment, it is difficult in a refugee camp to establish the sorts of autonomous rhythms that define daily life for productive, free citizens. Such violations disturb the common-sense idea of life stages, and challenge conventional understandings of the passage and meaning of time. When asked to reflect on their experience of time in the camp, refugees unanimously emphasize monotony and boredom. They speak of 'life always repeating itself', the feeling that time is a 'huge blank', or the sense of 'missing time'. After arriving in the camp, some feel that they can no longer preserve the meaningfulness of time: 'Time doesn't make sense in the camp'. Time is realized in the sense of passing time, of action, of happening and event. The refugee camp creates a vacuum of practical action that may descend upon individuals in the loss of time-sense. 'So the time is measured in the situation you face...When you are here, because the events are the same, all the same, you count the days and it goes. And the month comes, and the year goes. So you don't remember sometimes what you have done [in those years].'  Refugees will often develop conscious strategies for creating or maintaining a sense of time. One Ethiopian refugee speaks of planning small outings in order to 'create a space for time' so that 'we can sense that the time is passing'. Another recounts how he has tried to 'figure out' how his memory works in order to structure his sense of the past and remember the small events of daily camp life that he would otherwise forget. Others speak of beginning to keep journals, only to quit after discovering that there were no new events or information to write about. 'If your day today and tomorrow is the same, then you will lose the sense of the day, you see.' 


The experience of navigating oneself through time and space constitutes much of what it means to be human. It is difficult to imagine exercising one's humanity in a timeless world, or in an arbitrary space which begins to feel like the 'end of the earth'. The refugee camp is a commingling of physical imprisonment, monotony, and environmental oppression. Those who study the refugee situation sometimes speak of 'psychological dependency', trauma, or powerlessness as facets of the 'refugee psychological experience'. I am wary of these approaches because it seems to me they attribute a quality of the context—the refugee situation—to the psychology of the refugee. There is profound interaction between the context and individual in any cognitive-psychological equation. But distinctions should be made. The structure of the camp renders refugees dependent and powerless as objective actors, but these traits do not automatically transmit to the psychology of individual human refugees. The idea of psychological dependency carries a set of assumptions about personality and mindset, implying that refugees who live in camps feel a loss of agency, a loss of will or independence. I would argue that refugees maintain a powerful sense of agency and will. But they are forced to exercise agency within a vastly different set of legal, practical, and material realities. In this sense, the refugee camp does force the individual to engage a radically different landscape of action. Parameters of space and time acquire new bearings on daily cadences, and thus alter the experiential rhythms of everyday life. There is less new information to grapple with, muted change, and limited stimuli. A refugee may recognize that time seems to slows down, becomes muted, and fails to structure one's thought patterns in the same way as it used to back home in Ethiopia. He may reflect on how the spatial limitation and static sense of place has altered his terrain of thinking and compresses the range of new thoughts. Ultimately, it is my sense that this constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of thought. The important point is that refugees do not 'lose' their agency, will, independence, or efficacy. However, they are forced to creatively define ways to exercise their agency in a new cognitive landscape. As one refugee explains, 'The mind is always stubborn...the mind always develops, giving meaning.' This process gives rise to brilliantly adaptive cognitive patterns and modes of thinking, which testify to the autonomy and determination of refugees to organize and structure their own inner experience in psychologically hostile circumstances. 'You know we are made of our experiences...But I have adjusted myself, that as previously my space was crushed, all my life was not good....But through time, I grew out of it. Then I have accepted this is how the world is. The world of mine, now I am going to live.'  There is no right more basic, it seems, than the right to freedom of thought. More than food and water, human beings require the freedom to direct of their own consciousness, the experience of existing meaningfully in a time and space that is relevant to them. Viewed through a cognitive-psychological perspective, the practice of warehousing refugees may be seen as a violation of these fundamental rights. 

See also: Conversation part II (Jacob Akech) Conversation part III (Bethany Ojalehto) Conversation part IV (Angela Zarro) 


Photo credit: mknobil