A week before he flew to the world’s largest refugee camp, Ryan Jones was preparing to shoot a beach volleyball video in Times Square. He had never even heard of Dadaab. "I was just happy sitting on my couch, eating my Doritos and watching Mad Men," Jones told me over the phone.
In the next week, he learned about the famine that was wracking Somalia at the time (summer 2011) and flooding the arid border of Kenya with refugees. He learned how many of those refugees were coming to Dadaab—a group of camps built 20 years ago to shelter 90,000, that now had a population of half a million, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. "They were preparing me for the sheer numbers that were going to be arriving," Jones said. "The chaos and all that."
He flew there to be a visiting artist with FilmAid, an organization that had been in Dadaab since 2007. FilmAid had started out screening films for refugees’ entertainment, but they were now training refugees to tell their own stories through film, and had become a vital way for the patchwork of some 25 humanitarian agencies to disseminate messages about services. "When you have half a million people that method of word of mouth is no longer viable," said Jones. He was being brought in to help train people on doing "emergency response" videos.
The purpose was practical, and directed squarely at helping refugees. "If an agency like Doctors Withour Borders recognizes that there is a rash of cholera that is starting, they would say, ‘We need a film that we can be screening immediately about cholera prevention,’" Jones told me. That film would then be screened in tents all over the camps.
But over the weeks Jones spent there, he also saw an opportunity to communicate with the rest of the world. That idea eventually became Dadaab Stories—an ongoing multimedia window into daily life in the camps.
"What’s unique about this project is this isn’t an American film crew coming into a camp and spending a short period of time there and shooting some kind of 90-minute doc we hope to get into Sundance," Jones said. "This is a group of refugees telling their own story."
Those stories include an "emergency response" video to a cholera outbreak; an orientation film watched by all new refugees; a cautionary tale about the consequences of rape. They also include the story of , a music video from the Dadaab All Stars; and coverage of a visit from Scarlett Johansson.
What you don’t see in the videos is the headline-making violence that flared up soon after Jones left, when two Doctors Without Borders were kidnapped by the Shabaab, a militant group more recently linked with Al Qaeda. Neither Jones nor any other "visiting artists" from abroad have been able to return. "We really had our legs cut out from underneath us because of this security situation," said Jones. Now, Dadaab Stories operates when it can, publishing videos as well as an online version of a refugee-produced newspaper, The Refugee.
"It’s so unpredictable and we have to be constantly changing our methods and adjusting to security situations," said Jones. In that way, Jones said, the story of Dadaab stories has been a reflection of what life is like in the camps.