Part I 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. We learned a great deal. Most importantly, we learned that education means protection for girls in the camps; that quite literally, when girls are in school they are safe, and when they are not they are at high risk of violence and exploitation. We learned that opportunities for girls to attend secondary school are almost nonexistent, despite improvements at the primary level directed at retention and performance of girl students. We discovered an all-pervasive disempowerment among the girls, and lack of faith in determining the direction of their futures. Indeed, the majority of girls interviewed had grown up in the camps, and all of their role models and parents as well, had been confined for nearly the entirety of their adult lives. Yet we also learned of the girls’ goals and ambitions, and their desperate drive for an education. We were struck by their altruism and initiative and unfathomable resilience in the face of the many dangerous and oppressive challenges of their lives.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be 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 week I’ll turn first to the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana, then next week to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and finally in the following week to the three refugee camps in Rwanda: Kiziba, Gihembe, and Nyabiheke.
Dukwi Refugee Camp in Botswana
In Botswana, we were hosted by UNHCR and Skillshare International, and interviewed students, parents, teachers, community leaders, government officials, and camp representatives in the Dukwi refugee camp. (This was our standard procedure in all the camps we visited.) We also met with the director of the Botswana SOS Children’s Villages and interviewed 20 primary and secondary school girls in their care.
The Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana was the smallest of the camps we visited with a total population of under 4000 people, a wide variety of nationalities and cultures, and an equally dramatic range of education and professional levels among the adults. Refugees had lived in the camp for varying lengths of time, some for as little as three to four years (there were many who had fled post-election violence in Zimbabwe in 2008), though others had been trapped in Dukwi for over 15 years and had raised their children in the camp. One of the more salient features at the Dukwi camp was the plethora of gardening and small-scale crop production independently organized by the refugee population. In tremendous contrast to the expansive yet untillable desert land in Kakuma and the desperately overcrowded conditions in the camps in Rwanda, in Dukwi, fruits and vegetables – from patches of maize to veritable groves of banana and mango trees – grew copiously within many family compounds. The significance of this extra food became painfully apparent as we began interviewing students from other camps and realized the degree to which they were malnourished and chronically hungry.
The primary school in Dukwi was run by UNHCR but prevented by host government policy from hiring refugee teachers, even those with documented qualifications. Junior secondary school students were bussed a short distance away to the community run secondary school where they were challenged by facility and infrastructure deficits, shortages of learning materials, overcrowded classrooms, poor teacher motivation, and discrimination due to their refugee status. Scholarships to a leading school in Botswana had recently been offered to refugee students, but while many had applied, only one boy had been selected in the past year. Interestingly, a large number of both boys and girls from the SOS Children’s Villages in Botswana had qualified for these same scholarships. We were struck by this discrepancy, as many of the refugee girls we interviewed were excellent students with considerable potential. These students were highly motivated and had the added benefit of youth services provided by UNHCR and Skillshare to assist them with health, interpersonal, and community related issues.
Upon completion of junior secondary school, refugee students at Dukwi were placed in a number of community boarding schools of variable quality. We were able to visit with students attending one of these schools (a new, beautifully constructed campus that however, lacked teachers, text books, and infrastructure). Through interviews with over a dozen refugee girls as well as the principal and assistant headmaster, it became evident that the hardships these girls had faced in their junior secondary school were magnified in their present situation, that their grades had declined since leaving their former school, and that they harbored no real hope or understanding of how they could possibly alter the course of their lives through their educational attainment.
Overall, results of our interviews with recommended students at the Dukwi refugee camp indicated that in order to implement a successful scholarship program we would first need to introduce academic preparatory classes aimed at increasing the performance and eligibility of students. It was important for us to realize that for all refugee girls, the pursuit of an education had been, and continued to be, in direct competition with their struggle for food and shelter; that threats to their safety within the refugee camp were constant; that they had persevered despite having fled their homes and countries under threat of death, losing friends, family and possessions in the process; that during their flight to safety they had suffered the loss of up to a year of school, as well as the language barrier of their host country; and that in addition to cultural pressures and domestic obligations, there were tremendous gender inequities that, without intervention, would be difficult to overcome.
Currently, the primary focus of UNHCR is on primary school students; the majority of intellectual capital accrued during these formative years is henceforth lost, especially by girl students, as the quality and availability of post-primary education declines. New UNHCR mandates highlight the disservice to youth, and the vulnerable populations they represent, incurred by the absence of adequate post-primary provisions. Nonetheless, the UNHCR Education Strategy 2010-2012 explains that, “[t]he need for quality services is beyond UNHCR’s existing capacity”. As a result of our experience with disadvantaged youth in the U.S., we find ourselves in a position to assist the students in the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana.
The students that we interviewed were the top female students in the refugee camp, in what would be the equivalent of eighth grade in the United States. They were articulate and motivated yet there were gaps in their understanding and limitations in their frames of reference that had disqualified them from available scholarships in Botswana, and that would clearly impede their ability to succeed in high caliber schools and universities. However, in the same way that enrichment programs for disadvantaged students in the U.S. have proven their value in remediating educational deficits and preparing students for greater academic opportunities, we believe that enrichment and empowerment courses for high performing refugee girls would dramatically increase their competitiveness for secondary school and university scholarships. These programs would also facilitate an increase in enrollment, retention and performance at both the primary and secondary school levels, and serve as an impetus for expansion of community initiatives within the camp..
In terms of implementing preparatory classes, we have presently received offers from UNHCR in Botswana, and the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa to assist with this project. The curriculum will be leadership oriented and focus on classroom and experiential education, and community service projects. Recommendations from ALA, as well as model preparatory programs in the U.S. such as A Better Chance, Summer Search, and Quest Bridge will be incorporated in the program design.
Our goal is to initiate the Dukwi Academic Enrichment and Leadership Program by summer 2013. While this timeframe may be overly optimistic, our intention is to create immediate and viable opportunities for ALA interns to participate during their summer break from school. Ultimately, we would like to ensure adequate time to prepare the next round of students in the Dukwi refugee camp to achieve a higher rate of successful application for scholarships to secondary schools in Botswana. We are also committed to a continued focus on the exceptional students we interviewed in January and anticipate their full participation in the development and utilization of this program.