Part III of III
From January 10 through March 5, 2012, my colleague Matt Vincent and I visited five separate refugee camps in Botswana, Kenya, and Rwanda as the first step in developing the Vulnerable Scholars Program. Over the last month, I’ve been sharing our experiences and findings from the hundreds of interviews we conducted with education and government officials, from representatives at UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and NGO partners, from leaders in the refugee and host communities, and from countless young women and girls seeking desperately to achieve an education. This final post will focus on our visits to the three of the four refugee camps in Rwanda: Kiziba, Gihembe, and Nyabiheke. The fourth camp, Kigeme, was opened in August 2012 after an escalation in violence in and around Goma, a city in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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In Rwanda, we were hosted by UNHCR; in Kigali we met with the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, UNICEF, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). We also met with Didi Bertrand-Farmer to discuss the Partners In Health/Inshuti Mu Buzima scholarship initiative for highly vulnerable Rwandan girls. In the Kiziba, Gihembe, and Nyabiheke refugee camps, we interviewed approximately 20-30 students per camp as well as teachers, headmasters, and additional representatives from UNHCR, American Refugee Committee, JRS, ADRA, and a Nyabiheke community primary/junior secondary school.
The three camps we visited in Rwanda were home to a total of nearly 55,000 refugees, almost entirely from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Most of the girls we interviewed had lived in the camps their entire lives. The camps were built on an absolute minimum of land, effectively barring the refugees from any subsistence gardening, whatsoever. Though the surrounding countryside was fertile and, in places uncultivated, hunger was endemic in the camps and the mental concentration of the girls we interviewed was clearly affected.
Of all the camps we visited, the plight of the refugees in Rwanda seemed the most intractable. International and government funding for trained teachers and schools in the camps was negligible, and there were limited opportunities for students beyond primary school, even in host community schools. Part of the problem was a consequence of national efforts to increase access to education for all children (including refugees) without the means for ensuring adequate funding for teachers, infrastructure, or transportation. Education in Rwanda (including the refugee camps) had become officially compulsory through the ninth grade, yet refugees and disadvantaged Rwandan youth still found themselves locked out of community secondary schools because they could not afford the hidden costs of “free” schooling that compensated for shortfalls in government funding for teachers’ salaries and supplies.
Additional challenges in the camps stemmed from a recent government edict regarding the language of instruction. In 2008, the Rwandan government declared English the new official language for business, diplomacy, and scholarship, and recently this mandate had been implemented in the three refugee camps in Rwanda, requiring all teaching in a new language. (This was in spite of the fact that refugees were barred from employment, and had little hope of being resettled in Rwanda.) It became clear upon our arrival that the student (and teacher) populations of refugees: 1. were in the very early stages of learning English; 2. were non-conversant in French (the former official language of scholarship in Rwanda and still the official language of DRC); and 3. primarily spoke Kinyarwanda, the indigenous language of Rwanda. Classes were taught in English by struggling, untrained teachers in possession of minimal English language skills, with significant consequences. First, as expressed by teachers and school personnel, the level of learning and comprehension among students had diminished due to the unavoidable translation difficulties within the classroom; and second, should return to DRC become an option, this new generation of English speaking students could find themselves challenged to communicate in their home country, compounding their educational deficits as they struggled to earn a living.
The situation for refugee girls in Rwanda was desperate. For many of the students, the pursuit of an education was in direct competition with their struggle for food and shelter, and threats to their safety within the refugee camp were constant. In Gihembe camp, only primary school (the equivalent of grades 1-6) was offered, while in Nyabiheke camp, only the first three grades of primary school were provided. Thereafter, in both cases, students were transferred to community schools, though access was limited by cost and the domestic responsibilities of the girls; education for boys was always prioritized within the refugee families. In Kiziba camp, JRS operated a secondary school through grade 9, at which point education would cease unless scholarships to boarding schools were procured, as there were no local day schools. However, at the time of our visit there were no available scholarships. Further complicating factors included a Ministry of Education proposal to initiate a reduction/elimination of boarding schools to coincide with an increase in the availability of day schools; and efforts by UNHCR to shift education for all students from camp-based schools to community schools.
Refugee students who managed to achieve a full secondary school education would find that their career options remained constrained, as refugees were prohibited from obtaining formal employment anywhere in Rwanda, including the camps in which they lived. Even incentive-based job opportunities within the camps were limited. Only by obtaining a university degree could a refugee hope to break the bonds of encampment, yet these opportunities were so rare that they created little incentive for students, especially girls, to remain committed to their education.
Amidst such hopelessness, we were elated to discover Hope School, a fledgling secondary school in Gihembe camp, founded and operated by refugees. Hope School embodied all that was possible: it represented solutions from within – self-determination and self-direction by the refugee population. Hope School was a senior secondary school initiated by refugees who had received a high school education through JRS scholarships in 2009 (there were no longer JRS scholarships due to funding cuts). These students returned to Gihembe to give back to their community, to give to others what had been given to them. In response to the chronic and debilitating absence of educational opportunities for the present generation of warehoused youth, a small contingent of refugees had started this school that now served almost 200 students. The founding JRS scholars have since left their positions, yet the school was self-perpetuating by utilizing Hope School graduates as teachers. (Their qualifications – a high school diploma – were equal to most refugee teachers in the JRS camp schools in Rwanda, and to semi-trained teachers in refugee camps, worldwide.) Teachers at Hope School agreed to a minimum commitment of one year before moving on, with their goal being college scholarships or paid informal employment outside of the camp.
The refugee community was invested in this program. The parents had pooled their resources to purchase uniforms for students and offer teachers a small remittance. UNHCR was seeking funding for three classrooms at $2,300 each. Nonetheless, UNHCR could not technically fundraise or formally commit to this project, as Hope School was not yet government sanctioned. ADRA had supplied boxes of textbooks; otherwise, it was totally refugee driven. Students were inspired, teachers were inspired: they had accomplished what neither the UN or the NGOs or the government had been able to.