by TerraShare

 My name is Matt Vincent and I had the pleasure of traveling with TerraShare Founder and Executive Director, Paul Winter, throughout South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, and Rwanda, as we conducted an education-based needs assessment in five refugee camps as a beginning to the development of the Vulnerable Scholars Program (VSP). VSP is an initiative of TerraShare, with the mission to provide protection through education for at-risk, high-achieving girls, worldwide. From January through March 2012, I published the below posts, compiled of thoughts, observations, and notes from our meetings with students, parents, community leaders, teachers, headmasters, and representatives from various relief and development agencies. We hope that you’re able to take some time to read through the posts and feel free to contact us with any questions or comments!


Sunday, March 04, 2012

Arriving in Nairobi after spending two and a half weeks in Rwanda felt almost like returning home, as Kenya’s capital city has become our hub over the last two months. Upon our arrival, Paul and I realized that we have become more comfortable, less like first-time travelers in this hectic city – more confident in exploring on our own.

We were welcomed to say with our new, dear friends, Liz and Jerry McCann. These are the same wonderful people that I had mentioned in a previous post describing a dinner meeting held at Mrs. and Mr. Koome’s in early February. Staying with Liz and Jerry has been truly rewarding, both personally and professionally. We have had the pleasure of discussing with them, for many hours, the next steps of the Vulnerable Scholars Program upon our return to the States. We truly could not have been more fortunate.

Liz & Jerry McCann (top) with Matt (left) and Paul (right) at Mt. Longonot in Kenya’s Rift Valley

During our last week in Africa, Paul and I had the opportunity to meet with a number of representatives from organizations that have been invaluable to the development of VSP programming, especially in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Our most important meeting was with Dr. Marangu Njogu, Ms. Phyllis Mureu, and Ms. Jully Odanga of Windle Trust Kenya. Over the course of three hours we reviewed two important proposals and the next steps of our partnership. Firstly we discussed the terms for TerraShare to provide scholarships for three brilliant young women we interviewed from the Kakuma refugee camp to attend safe, high quality Kenyan boarding schools outside of the camp. With support from TerraShare, WTK will offer the three girls the necessary support to ensure their academic and social success, including transportation, mentorship, and additional academic assistance, if necessary. WTK will provide TerraShare with quarterly reports on the girls’ academic performance, as well as any time-sensitive, pertinent information.

Secondly, TerraShare and Windle Trust Kenya will begin working closely to develop additional academic programming within Kakuma targeting an increase in protection, empowerment, and leadership capacity amongst young women and girls. Though the details are still being forged, Paul and I will be reaching out to knowledgeable and committed individuals upon our return to the States with the aims of creating a working group to assist with these developments.

Throughout the remainder of the week, Paul and I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Joanina Karugaba, UNHCR Senior Regional Global Advisor: Women & Children, Mary Kiguru, Board Member of Education for All Children (EFAC), and Ms. Jacqueline Obala and Mr. Patrick Wakhio, mentors at the Masomo Mashinani Foundation (MMF). Each of these meetings was instrumental in our understanding of the challenges facing children not only in the refugee camps, but also throughout much of Kenya. Both MMF and EFAC currently provide educational and psychosocial support to underserved and marginalized Kenyan children. The programmatic approach toward leadership development and empowerment utilized by these organizations is exemplary; as we look to incorporate these critical elements into VSP programming, we will work closely with both MMF and EFAC to share best practices.

As Paul and I reflect over the last two months, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a range of memories and emotions: the pure kindness of others, the very tragic reality of prolonged confinement and withering hope in the refugee camps, and the strength and determination of the most vulnerable members of a most vulnerable segment of society. In reviewing this blog, rereading the very first entry, it is evident that we have come very far from in our awareness of the needs and challenges of refugee girls, and our understanding of how best we can help. In visualizing the entire scope of this project, I realize we have now completed the initial step in a very long journey toward ensuring protection and education for some of the world’s most vulnerable girls.

Upon returning to the US, Paul and I will immediately begin compiling all the information we have gathered into a Findings Report and use this document as the foundation from which to construct future programs and initiatives. Paul and I have a great deal of work ahead of us, and some excellent partnerships and contacts to assist with this project, but the resolve required is nothing in comparison to the determination of the young women and girls we met along this mission.

-Paul & Matt


Monday, February 27, 2012

On the short flight Monday morning from Nairobi to Kigali, Paul and I tried to imagine the unique challenges facing the refugee populations we would soon be meeting. Between Dukwi and Kakuma, we had been exposed to a multitude of complex difficulties and couldn’t quite fathom how things could be worse. But our apprehensions were temporarily quelled as the plane made its final descent. Looking out through the small window, we were in awe of what was easily the most classically beautiful country we had ever seen. For as far as one could see, the rolling hills of Kigali were speckled with quant, European-style homes displaying red clay roof tiles. It was a sight so wonderful it was easy to forget the nation’s recent brutal history.

A passing view of homes speckled throughout one of the hills in Kigali

When we arrived at the airport we were met by Ms. Tigist Girmat, Associate Community Services Officer for UNHCR. From there we were taken to our hotel where we prepared for an afternoon meeting with Ms. Girmat and UNHCR Country Representative, Ms. Neimah Warsame. It was during this meeting that Paul and I learned how, in many ways the educational outlook for students in Rwanda’s three camps (Kiziba, Gihembe, and Nyabiheke) is, to a great extent even more bleak than for those students in both the Kakuma and Dukwi camps. For most students, access to post-primary education isn’t just financially or socially prohibitive – it’s impossible.

Recognizing that education is a right for all children, providing access to basic education is both a priority and mandate of UNHCR. In the case of Rwanda, schooling through ninth grade is considered basic and compulsory; therefore, UNHCR must provide access through this point. However, due to a variety of obstacles a large number of students throughout all three camps are out of school even at the primary level, and nearly all students are absent from upper secondary school (ninth through twelfth grades). According to a recent UNHCR report on education within the three camps in 2011, 92% of 15 to 17 year olds were out of school, whereas 13% of 6 to 14 year olds were out of school in the same year. This attrition highlights a significant problem not just for the individual student, but also for the community at large. With nearly 50% of the total refugee population being school-aged (3 to 17 years old), a failure to educate these children beyond basic levels will serve to perpetuate the already increasing dependency on service providing organizations, and to reduce the ability of this generation of refugees to contribute meaningfully to their host and/or home countries.

Homes along the terraced hills of Kigali

Though this adverse outcome is universal throughout all three camps, each one has its own unique set of contributing factors. For instance, Kiziba, Rwanda’s largest camp and the first that Paul and I visited, is situated within a remote section of the mountains in Kibuye, a city in the country’s western Karongi district. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is only able to provide camp-based education for students in grades 1-9. Due to its geographical isolation, access to public upper secondary day schools is not possible, and there are real concerns that the government may phase out public boarding schools as part of an ambitious effort to construct more day schools in rural parts of the country. With virtually no space within the camp for additional school buildings, UNHCR is dependent on creative solutions to link refugee students with government-run schools in nearby communities. Unfortunately, these solutions do not currently exist, dooming students in Kiziba to a life without educational prospects.

Like the 100 or so students we had met at Dukwi and Kakuma, the girls we spoke with in Kiziba have many of the same dreams and aspirations of becoming doctors, lawyers, nurses, social workers, and other types of professionals aimed at giving back to their families and communities. However, without any likelihood of going to upper secondary school (and therefore university), the realization of these dreams is truly improbable. As a result, these young people with incredible potential will remain trapped in the camp indefinitely. For the boys, this will mean that many will become street children and engage in dangerous, self-destructive behaviors. For the girls, many will get married at a young age, and then become pregnant. Others will find jobs working as domestic servants in town where they will likely be exposed to sexual exploitation and perhaps worse.

Morning clouds hanging over the Kiziba Refugee Camp

Young boys in the Kiziba Refugee Camp

Community out and about in the Kiziba Refugee Camp

After our visit to Kiziba, Paul and I had the opportunity to spend two days speaking with students and education officials in the Gihembe camp. Though, at present, the educational outlook remains similar to that of Kiziba, UNHCR’s efforts to integrate students into nearby government-run schools shows great promise. This shift in the implementation of refugee education was precipitated by the utter lack of physical space within the camp for educational facilities, and through recognition of the need for sustainable efforts that could outlast potential budgetary constraints amongst service providers. In other words, if funding for education from relief and development organizations dries up, students would still be able to attend government schools, thereby preventing any interruption in their learning. UNHCR has been working closely with Rwanda’s district education office to build additional classrooms in exchange for refugee students gaining entry into the government-run schools.

Prior to leaving Gihembe, Paul and I learned of an inspiring program, the Hope School, that is initiated and operated by refugees in the camp. Founded in 2009 by a group of refugees fortunate to receive a JRS scholarship to secondary school (an opportunity that no longer exists due to funding cuts), the school offers free upper secondary school to students within the camp. The founders, appreciative of the investment made on their behalf, made the decision to return to Gihembe and reciprocate the goodwill by investing in the next wave of students. While the founders have moved on to other opportunities, a dedicated cadre of teachers (graduates of the Hope School) has committed to volunteer to teach the nearly 200 students now in attendance. The investment has come full circle as the refugee community has come together to support the school by pooling resources to award small teacher compensations and to purchase school uniforms for the students.

Gihembe Refugee Camp

Gihembe Refugee Camp

Community of the Gihembe Refugee Camp gathering for a Clowns Without Borders performance

Sadly, the school is not yet formally recognized by Rwanda’s Ministry of Education, though Hope School would like to expand in order to accept additional students. Nevertheless, their success has not gone unnoticed. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) has demonstrated its support through a large donation of textbooks. Acknowledging the school’s impressive outcomes, UNHCR is exploring means by which they may be able to help fund the creation of additional classrooms. The Hope School model, though relatively uncomplicated, is remarkable and should be considered for replication in other camps, especially as it demonstrates perfectly a sustainable, self-perpetuating approach. As I reflect on the Hope School’s amazing feats, I am reminded of Barbara Zues’s proclamation that “we cannot afford to have human potential linger around until a durable solution is found… we need to look at the immediate and long-term development needs of refugees in protracted contexts.” The Hope School does exactly this.

One of the teachers Paul and I spoke with at the Hope School in the Gihembe Refugee Camp

The last camp in Rwanda that Paul and I visited was the Nyabiheke Refugee Camp. With a similar camp population to Gihembe of 20,000, the camp is tucked deep in rural Rwanda, accessible only by rutted, nearly impassible dirt roads that turn slick and dangerous after periods of heavy rain, a reality we faced on our last day.

The educational infrastructure in Nyabiheke camp is similar to that of Gihembe camp, as well. In fact, the model of integrating refugee students into government-run schools is being implemented for all grades beyond third; ADRA is providing academic services from early childhood to third grade in the camp. For the most part, the integration model is quite effective, though there are a number of remaining challenges.

After interviewing nearly 25 girls of secondary school age, we learned that for many families, affording the required materials (books, notebooks, uniforms, etc.) and teacher fees for lower secondary school (grades 6 – 9) was not possible. UNHCR and other organizations have been able to assist with costs through primary school, but have yet to make consistent progress toward assisting with secondary school requirements. Though lower secondary school is free and compulsory, these “hidden costs” often prohibit refugee students (and many disadvantaged Rwandans) from being able to attend.

There are other significant problems associated with enrollment in community schools. In Nyabiheke, students as young as 10 years old are required to leave the camp on foot and walk up to an hour to school, depending on where they are enrolled. Through our conversations with students, we learned that many fear being abused, even raped, during their travels to and from school. The girls also shared concerns about the process for reporting abuse as, allegedly, perpetrators will bribe male camp leaders in order to have the charges brought against them dropped. The female camp leaders, we were told, have little to no influence on the outcome of such decisions.

Young members of the community just outside the Nyabiheke Refugee Camp

Before leaving the Nyabiheke camp, Paul and I were able to briefly visit one of the community schools hosting refugee children. We learned from the headmaster that the students from the refugee camp were far and beyond the most successful students in the school. The greatest challenge the school faces, aside from a shortage of classrooms, is lack of involvement from the parents of refugee students. Very few, it was explained, participate in the Parent-Teacher Association resulting in confusion over which expenses are actually required and which are merely expected. For instance, all of the girls we interviewed cited school uniforms as a major cost barrier to attending school. However, the headmaster explained that if a student arrived without a uniform, they would still be welcomed into the class. Though we weren’t able to explore this issue further, it is conceivable that while the price of the uniform may not be the true barrier, the stigma of not conforming with one’s peers may be obstructive.

As our time in Rwanda came to a close, we were honored to meet with Ms. Didi Bertrand Farmer, Director of Community Health and Social Development at Inshuti Mu Buzima (IMB) and Chair of the Haiti-Rwanda Commission, as well as her two colleagues, Ms. Grace Ryan, Research Assistant at Inshuti Mu Buzima; and Victor Nkurikiyinka, Chief Operating Officer for Inshuti Mu Buzima and Partners in Health. Inshuti Mu Buzima (which translates into Partners in Health in Kinyarwanda) is the Rwandan sister organization of Partners in Health (PIH), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit health care organization dedicated to providing quality care to poor communities, worldwide.

By duplicating the approach of PIH’s work in Haiti, IMB “was designed as a comprehensive primary health care model within the public sector.” In 2009, Ms. Bertrand Farmer founded the Women and Girls Initiative with the aim of “produc[ing] girls who are independent, who have access to information so they can make healthy decisions about their lives.” Expounding on IMB’s objective, Ms. Bertrand Farmer explained in a recent press release how they “want to eliminate barriers to education for these girls and ensure their economic independence.” The Women and Girls Initiative currently serves 127 out-of-school girls between the ages of 12 and 19 from rural regions across Rwanda. Their primary aim is to empower women and girls academically, economically, and psychosocially.

Of the 127 girls, 41 were selected to reenroll in primary or secondary school with the financial support of IMB. After they complete secondary school, IMB aspires to support the girls either through higher education or microbusiness opportunities. Realizing that not all students are able or prepared to attend university, IMB is working closely with PIH’s Program on Social and Economic Rights to offer additional opportunities that will lead to the women’s economic independence. Additionally, IMB is looking at creative ways to integrate economic empowerment programs in the Women and Girls Initiative in order to ensure that even those students who attend university are properly equipped in the event that the job market is unable to absorb their talents immediately upon graduation.

Of the girls who did not select to return to school for a variety of reasons, including caring for children of their own, IMB is working to provide apprenticeship programs and vocational training as another approach to providing economic empowerment options. While these initiatives are still in their embryonic stages, Ms. Bertrand Farmer stressed their importance as productive pathways to economic and social independence outside of the academic course.

The Women and Girls Initiative is a model that has also recently been adopted in Haiti, however the implementation has been a bit more of a challenge due to government instability at both the central and local levels. Much of the success in program implementation in Rwanda has been because of the support offered by the Rwandan government and community health workers (CHWs). Ms. Ryan explained how CHWs serve as an important referral agent when it comes to identifying women and girls in need. The relationship between the patient and the CHW is an entry point of additional IMB services, such as the Women and Girls Initiative. Without CHW support, identifying women and girls would be much more problematic due to their geographic isolation in the rural Rwandan countryside. In regard to Haiti, Ms. Bertrand Famer explained that the government’s instability has made this type of relationship-building a challenge for program implementation.

As VSP develops, we will continue to explore ways in which we can best integrate future programming with IMB. As both initiatives are still emerging, great potential lies ahead. We were utterly inspired by the holistic and comprehensive nature of IMB and our meeting with such a dynamic team served as a perfect conclusion to our time in Rwanda. As with every country, every meeting, every interaction, Paul and I remain incredibly grateful for the support and guidance we invariably received.

-Paul & Matt


Friday, February 17, 2012

With very little sleep, Paul and I arrived at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport on Friday, February 3 at 5:00AM for our flight for the Kakuma Refugee Camp, situated in Kenya’s northwestern district of Turkana. After a several hour delay in the overflowing waiting area, we finally headed out to board the small prop¬ plane with the World Food Program (WFP) logo emblazoned on its tail. The ninety-minute journey took us over desert and semi-desert terrain, revealing an otherworldly display of baked earth broken only by scrub vegetation flanking the seasonal riverbeds.

As we descended we flew just above a sliver of the camp, providing us a clear vantage of the metal rooftops of congested refugee dwellings, and of children running wildly toward the tarmac, located just outside the camp in the Kakuma village. This host community – made up mostly of the local nomadic tribe, Turkana – has a tenuous, intertwined relationship with the refugee community and is, in fact, endowed with grave challenges of its own. In a subsequent post, I will expand on these issues.

Utterly dazed by lack of sleep, sharp sun, and the 100 degree heat of an environment completely unknown to us, Paul and I managed to gather our gear before being rescued by our Windle Trust hosts, Jeremiah and Abok. We loaded into the 4X4 and headed to the compound that houses most of the administrative offices and lodging for the relief organizations working in the camp. On the way, we drove down the only paved road leading through the center of the host community. This entire strip, perhaps several hundred yards long, was lined with small shops and throngs of people, requiring Abok to drive at a snail’s pace so as to not endanger anyone walking or bicycling or milling about. In this vast, harsh terrain where the people are so isolated and impoverished, bicycles are an essential mode of transportation; all along the periphery, we saw people huddled around upturned bicycles, spinning the tires and cleaning the gears.

Main road just outside Kakuma Refugee Camp leading to host community markets

Main entrance to the Kakuma Refugee Camp

As we entered the formal boundaries of the Kakuma Refugee Camp, we passed a steady flow of individuals both leaving and entering the camp on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. We learned that movement in and out of the camp is permitted between 6:00AM and 6:00PM. This enables refugees to leave the camp and enter the host community, as well as allowing the Turkana to enter the camp, primarily for trade and business purposes. In general, the Turkana are a more traditional tribe, adorning themselves (especially the women) in elaborate wraps and colorful jewelry. Men, for the most part, wear a western style shirt with a traditional wrap around their waist. It is also common for a man to carry a steel wrist knife, a staff, and small stool to rest on.

Approaching the compound gate, we drove through a standing procession of dozens of large semi-trailer trucks loaded with food rations, waiting to be unloaded into the huge WFP warehouses. Snaking through the narrow dirt lanes, we arrived at last at the Windle Trust residences. As we laid out our gear in the guestrooms, we were still rather stunned to be in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. We felt deeply that we had entered a forbidden realm, a most desperate place on earth.


Initially established in 1992 on nearly 10 square miles of land to serve Sudanese refugees, the Kakuma Refugee Camp now hosts individuals and families from throughout the region, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea; currently, more than half of the camp’s 87,000 residents are Somali. With increased instability in South Sudan, and overcrowding at the Dadaab Refugee Camp situated just over the Somali border in Kenya, the population at Kakuma is only expected to increase. Presently, there are around 900 new arrivals, daily.

On the whole, the camp is divided into three large sections – Kakuma I, II, & III – that are physically separated by riverbeds. Within each of these communities, the camp is then divided again into Zones. Kakuma I is divided into Zones I, II, & III while Kakumas II & III are divided into just two Zones. Generally speaking, each Zone hosts a specific nationality (similar to the structure of the Dukwi Refugee Camp in Botswana), but there are also multinational sections.

Click here for a map of the Kakuma Refugee camp

As Paul and I traveled through the camp on rutted, nearly impassable dirt roads, we found that Kakuma I, II, & III each had its own town-like setup. Market roads ran through the center of the community lined with refugee-run shops on either side. These shops, tightly clustered, tiny and windowless, included convenience stores, restaurants, hardware stores, supply stores, and a variety of others tailored toward the needs of the community. Though the owners and their families usually lived behind their shops, the main roads were mostly commercial while the surrounding areas were residential.

As mentioned previously, the semi-arid environment is simply brutal and a host to a wide array of challenges. Our visit during Kenya’s summer exposed us to dry, hot days with temperatures averaging around 104°F. Without many trees to absorb the winds, days are filled with mini-sandstorms requiring you to protect your eyes and effectively coating everything in a thick layer of dust. While neither Paul nor I personally experienced contact with any dangerous creatures, we learned that during certain times of the year there is a much greater prevalence of poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions.

During the annual rainy season, travel throughout the camp is often simply impossible. The multiple riverbeds that divide the different sections of the camp fill completely and suddenly, cutting off access from one part of the camp to another. With the camp sprawled across the desert, traveling from one region to the other is necessary in order to access services, schools, markets, or administrative offices. We learned that each year there are a small number of people who are killed trying to cross the rivers. As if these challenges weren’t enough, the rains also bring increases in cases of malaria and cholera.


Even before Paul and I arrived at Kakuma, we knew that the issues and challenges facing those in the refugee camp, especially for young women and girls, would be beyond our comprehension. Throughout our week at the camp, we met many individuals with a much greater understanding and appreciation of these complex and multilayered problems. This shared knowledge, coupled with the oral histories obtained through interviews with nearly 50 high-school aged girls, 25 older students heading to college in Canada, and a dozen teachers and administrators has given us a much clearer picture of the existing gaps in services that leave young women and girls perpetually and tragically vulnerable.

Social & Cultural

A common theme throughout all of our interviews was the echo of the social and cultural precept that girls should not attend school, especially beyond the primary level. From the perspective of the many traditional cultures forced en masse into the refugee camp, paying for one’s daughter to pursue her secondary education is considered wasteful in view of the assumption/fact that she is destined for early marriage and servitude, regardless of her academic standing. In fact, marrying the daughters off at a young age can create a small asset for the family in the form of a bride-dowry. We learned from many of the girls that as they walk to and from school, they are harassed by men, boys, and even older women for their audacity in seeking an education.

The subjugation of women and girls is woven into the fabric of daily existence. The girls that we spoke with, many of whom we visited at home, described and demonstrated their daily routines. Waking up around 4:00AM, they make their younger siblings breakfast, clean up after cooking, sweep their homes, and at around 6:00AM gather their items and walk up to one hour to school. As they make the trek through the camp in the morning, they are likely to be harassed. And as they walk through remote and isolated areas, they fear being attacked and perhaps even raped. They arrive at school a bit after 7:00AM.

While at school they are safe, though their classroom will be overcrowded, with as many as 100 students to one teacher. At around 10:30AM, they will break for one cup of porridge. For most, this is the first time they will have eaten all day. Though they made breakfast for their younger siblings, they often wouldn’t partake, perhaps drinking only a bit of tea, as food is scarce. At around 1:00PM, they will be let out of school and make the long journey back to their homes. As with their morning commute, they will likely face harassment and will fear abuse.

When the girls finally arrive home, they will continue with chores, including the collection of firewood – a very high-risk activity due to the distances traveled and the isolation involved. Perhaps with a sister, but often alone, they will go to the closest functioning water tap and fill multiple Jerrycans of water. During one of our home visits, a student showed us how she hauls water, balancing one Jerrycan on her head, carrying another in her free hand, all while toting her young niece secured on her back in a wrap.

Students taking porridge during their morning school break.

The girls will sweep their homes and compounds, wash their school uniforms and the family’s clothes, prepare dinner, and clean up afterwards. During these afterschool chores, we learned, the brothers are typically playing soccer, doing their homework, even resting. Later in the afternoon the girls may request permission to return to school in order to have a quiet, secure place to do their homework, since by remaining at home they will be bound to perform domestic duties to the full exclusion of their studies. During their travel to and from school, they will once again face grave risks to their safety.

Arriving home between 6:00 and 7:00PM, they will eat what for some is their first real meal of the day. After dinner, they will wash the dishes, help bathe their siblings and prepare them for bed, and complete any of the chores that were unfinished from earlier in the afternoon. Once they have finished, they will go to sleep and rest, only to face it all again in the morning.


For the young women and girls that Paul and I spoke with, school provides the only source of joy and hope in their lives. As was described in the previous section, the social and cultural challenges facing these students are exceptionally disempowering and serve only to stifle the very essence of what it means to be a young person. While school offers a source of protection from both physical harm and the subjugation of cultural norms, there are a multitude of academic difficulties students must cope with.

Over the week, Paul and I had the opportunity to visit primary and secondary classrooms throughout the camp. Over 55% of the camp’s 87,000 residents are under the age of 17. There are 14 primary schools with 310 teachers for 16,573 students, 6,646 of whom are girls. There are only two secondary schools with 44 teachers for 889 students, 128 of whom are girls. Each class we visited was significantly overcrowded, with a student to teacher ratio of up to 100 to 1 at the primary level and 45 to 1 at the secondary level. Additionally, because there are not enough teachers, oftentimes students will arrive to a teacher-less classroom if the teacher is sick or otherwise unable to attend. Nevertheless, behavioral issues are rare, as all the children know that the alternative to being in school is so much worse, so they are very careful to follow the rules. It was amazing to witness such enormous groups of attentive and well-behaved students!

Student taking notes during class

Student attentively listening to her teacher during class

The classroom layout was essentially the same at every school with three rows of seven or eight tables and benches. Each bench, though designed for two to three students, seated four to five students tightly packed together. None of the classrooms were equipped with electricity, but were constructed with three to four windows on each of the exterior walls. These windows, though effective for providing adequate lighting during brightly lit days, also permitted dust, sand, and rain to be blown into the class during periods of high wind and rain. While Paul and I were visiting one of the classes during a typical windy day, a strong gust blew sand and debris through the windows and open door, scattering students’ papers and exercise books about the room and forcing them to protect their faces. Students in the overflowing classroom could scarcely hear their teacher over the wind rattling the loose tin on the roof.  We also learned that during the rainy season, a deafening rain pounds on the tin roofs, the dirt floors of the classrooms often flood, and that the rain entering through the window openings will often soak the students and their materials.

These facilities-related deficiencies undermine the already marginal quality of education available to the children. Due to a lack of funding and opportunities, more than 80% of all the teachers within the camp are not adequately trained, and most do not have an education beyond the secondary school level. Textbooks are scarce, forcing students to absorb all the information through instruction and feverish note-taking. They are never allowed to take these textbooks home. With so many students in one classroom, participation outside of group recitation is nearly impossible. Teachers, therefore, must instruct their students through lectures, and students are limited to memorization of the material.

Absences from school further impede the girls’ chances of success. During bi-monthly food distribution, the girls must miss school to collect the family’s rations and this can entail one to two days of queuing two times every month and sometimes longer if the girl is required to transport the rations of others in exchange for additional food, goods or cash for her family. Girls may also lose class time as a result of walking their younger siblings to school to keep them safe, thus being late themselves, but commonly they are late to school anyway due to their early morning chores. The irony is that because these girls are frequently tardy and miss the first part of class, they are consequently punished upon arrival and forced to perform various chores around the school before being allowed to return to class. Another all too common cause for missed school is the lack sanitary pads for the girls, coupled with the lack of bathrooms. There is often no other recourse for girls than to stay at home during their menstrual cycles, resulting in another significant block of lost school time every month. While aid organizations are working to address this problem, it is an ongoing issue with an obvious, yet seemingly elusive remedy.

As girls get older and take on more of the domestic chores, the balance between academic and familial responsibilities becomes increasingly difficult to manage. As with the educational system in the US, the increase in academic rigor between primary and secondary school is significant. Many of the secondary school girls we interviewed expressed grave doubts about their ability to maintain their grades due to the amount of time required to study and complete their homework. With domestic responsibilities such as cleaning, collecting firewood and hauling water, preparing dinner, washing clothes, caring for younger siblings and/or ill parents, coupled with the lack of electricity, candles, lamp oil, or flashlights in their homes, the girls are utterly constrained in the amount of time they have to study. As mentioned previously, many girls will seek permission from their parents to return to afternoon study sessions at school, despite the security concerns, just to have a peaceful and supportive environment in which to study with their schoolmates.

Other academic challenges encompass financial and protection concerns. Consider first the financial difficulties of living in a refugee camp. For the majority of families and individuals, a steady source of income, however miniscule, is unattainable; as a result, extreme measures are required to pay for necessary items, like school notebooks, that may not be provided by relief organizations, yet that are required for students to attend school. One income generating practice that seems to be ubiquitous throughout the refugee camps is the selling of food rations. This is especially shocking (and also indicative of the high value placed on education) as the World Food Program provides each family and individual with the equivalent of survival rations: a quantity of maize, beans and oil based on a systematized calculation for providing each person with the daily number of calories necessary to stay alive. While a range of relief agencies are working to introduce feasible income generating activities to minimize the need for families and individuals to sell their already meager food supply, this practice still prevails. Due to the fact that children in the camp are underfed and suffer from hunger, the World Food Program has recently initiated a school feeding program that provides students with one cup of porridge around midmorning. For most girls this porridge is the first thing they will have eaten since waking at 4:00AM. The girls we interviewed explained that many students have a difficult time staying awake in class, paying attention, and thinking clearly due to hunger and a consistent lack of food.

Girls coming together after school to share materials and study 

Young women and girls also face a host of safety concerns, some of which were touched upon in the previous section, but are important to reiterate. As mentioned, the camp expands over 10 square miles and is divided by riverbeds into three main subsections. There are only two secondary schools in the entire camp meaning that older girls, in particular, have to walk great distances of up to an hour, often through remote areas where people have been beaten and raped. All of the girls we spoke with shared deep concerns about walking through these dangerous areas, especially when heading to school in the pre-dawn hours. Girls explained that walking in groups is a better option than walking alone but that even a group of girls would not deter an assailant. The greater difficulty of walking in groups, however, is that in most cases, due to different schedules and the scattering of dwellings, it is not even feasible. Physical violence, especially rape, is a risk every girl takes every time she walks to and from school, every single day.

Paul and I visited the home of one student, “K”, who lives with her mother and younger sister in a protection area of the camp. Some time ago (while in Kakuma), the girls’ stepfather stabbed their mother and threatened the young girls’ lives. That man still resides in the camp today, and though the mother and daughters are living in a protected area, there are very serious concerns that the daughters may be abducted during their treacherous walk to and from school, especially now that the older girl needs to walk an even further distance to secondary school. If “K” is not able to find a scholarship to a boarding school outside of the camp, it is quite likely that these safety issues will prohibit her from continuing her education.

The Kakuma Host Community

Surrounding the Kakuma refugee camp is the village of Kakuma, situated within Kenya’s northwestern Turkana District. According to a recent census, the Kakuma community totals nearly 100,000 people. However, as Paul and I traveled throughout the region we would have been hard pressed to identify evidence of these numbers as we never saw more than small clusters of wigwams and mud-brick semi-permanent homes – an attribute of the nomadic lifestyle of the Turkana tribe. In many ways the host community is more vulnerable than the refugee community and largely benefits from services provided for refugees, such as health services, education, food aid and community development. Though our direct interactions were few, Paul and I witnessed on a daily basis the intertwined livelihoods of the Turkana and refugee communities.

For instance, the Turkana women routinely work in the camp doing manual labor; oftentimes they are “employed” by refugees to cut firewood or haul heavy rations from the food distribution centers, in exchange for food. Even during the most sweltering days we would see women and their daughters hauling water in the camp, building brush fences, chopping firewood with machetes, and carrying huge sacks of maize on their heads. They worked relentlessly. The men, on the other hand, seemed to do very little outside of conversing with other men, playing games, taking naps, and accompanying the women on their trek home from the camp at the end of each day. This observation was, in fact supported by a member of the Turkana community, as well as a number of individuals who work closely with the community.

On the Monday after our arrival at the camp, Paul and I had the opportunity to visit a Turkana primary school. While it was not far from the camp, as soon as we turned off the only two-lane asphalt road, we began weaving slowly through an endless maze of narrow, rutted dirt paths, past enclaves of wigwams situated in tiny clearings. It is worth noting that there are almost no vehicles in this area of Kenya aside from those of UNHCR and the NGOs, the supply trucks coming from Nairobi, and the occasional motorcycle or car of a refugee (used as a taxi by the refugee community and a means of income for the owner).

Students sitting on the floor in an overcrowded classroom

Attentive students sitting on the floor in an overcrowded classroom

When we finally arrived at the school, we were literally shocked by its presence in the midst of such an inhospitable terrain, by the bright splashes of colorful uniforms, and smiling, laughing, excited yet attentive children. However, when we visited the classrooms we were struck by the astronomical student to teacher ratios; classes were literally overflowing onto the sidewalk. This was primarily a consequence of the Kenyan government’s recently passed law mandating free primary school for all citizens. Because of insufficient planning there are nowhere near the necessary number of schools, teachers or classrooms. Furthermore, there is no government funding for students who complete primary school to continue on to secondary school. All students must obtain private scholarships or pay independently.

Following our school visit, we travelled to the home of one of the top performers from Standard Eight (eighth grade) who had returned to her former, traditional life of living at home and caring for her sick mother. Due to her mother’s illness, the father and siblings had abandoned the home, leaving this student – the eldest daughter – to care for the mother. The girl’s only alternative was early marriage, childbearing, and servitude. Her great hope was to obtain a scholarship to attend secondary school and study to be a nurse, whereupon she planned to return to her community to care for her people. This poor girl wept as she told us that she had begged the men in her village to give her a goat to sell in order to cover her school fees, yet they had replied that her duty was at home and that her education (even to the benefit of the community) was irrelevant. This was a common theme among the female students in the Turkana District of Kenya.


There is a growing realization of the power of education as an important protection tool for students, as a “life-saving and life sustaining intervention” in emergency settings such as the refugee camp. This impact, however, will only be realized through an investment over the entire continuum of education (i.e., primary, secondary, and tertiary levels) by humanitarian and development agencies in concert with the refugee community. In the Kakuma Refugee Camp, there are a number of organizations that are providing sustainable programming that protects children, builds knowledge, and strengthens communities. Nevertheless, significant gaps in services still exist, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels.

Windle Trust Kenya

Founded in 1977, Windle Trust Kenya (WTK) currently supports refugee education in Nairobi, as well as the Kakuma and Dadaab camps through “specialized programs for students and teachers.” During our time in Kakuma, Paul and I had the honor and pleasure of working closely with two knowledgeable and passionate WTK staff members, Mr. Jeremiah Orina and Ms. Joyce Kamau. With their guidance and support, Paul and I were able to garner an understanding of the specific challenges facing young women and girls, and viewed first-hand the programs implemented by WTK to counteract the academic deficiencies resulting from the challenges of camp life and societal and familial constraints.

In response to the domestic and culture impediments to education for young women and girls, WTK runs Saturday “catch up” classes for female students in primary school. Qualified instructors for these classes are selected from within the refugee community and are provided with a small stipend as compensation. Paul and I had the opportunity to visit a number of these classes and were amazed by the dedication and commitment of the students and teachers. Though the girls were exposed to the same challenges facing students during traditional weekday classes (overcrowding, lack of academic resources, exposure to the elements, etc.), their energy was palpable. For example, in one particular class, as the teacher walked around the room checking students’ solutions to a math problem he had written on the chalkboard, he was met with exuberance from students shouting “Teacher! Teacher!”, so obviously thrilled by the individual attention they were receiving.

Students continuing their work during mid-afternoon break from WTK Saturday Classes

Student learning during one of the WTK Saturday Classes

Beyond providing remedial education, the Saturday catch-up program also offers a form of protection, or sanctuary for the girls. While ensconced in daylong classes, students are shielded from endless, sometimes dangerous domestic responsibilities, such as venturing into the bush in search for firewood. Additionally, students are provided with a late morning cup of porridge, relieving slightly their ever-present feelings of hunger.

However, the catch-up program is only offered to students at the primary school level. Even though success has been documented by a significant increase in the number of female students passing the Kenyan national exam for entry into secondary school, similar programming is nonexistent for students struggling through secondary school.

Angelina Jolie Boarding School

In 2002, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ms. Angelina Jolie visited the Kakuma Refugee Camp and learned of the egregious abuses against young refugee girls, including the high prevalence of rape, child marriage, and unwanted pregnancies. Appalled by the social and cultural restrictions on girls’ education, Ms. Jolie was moved to help fund the construction of a boarding school serving nearly 250 girls in grades five through eight. After meeting with a group of students, Ms. Jolie said, “These girls are so strong, so inspiring. They want an education because they want a better life. They know they don’t have to stay forever near the bottom of the pile and want to move up.”

The Angelina Jolie Primary Boarding School for Girls

Students of the Angelina Jolie Primary School walking across the field at sunset

Students of the Angelina Jolie Primary School gathering water for laundry

Situated at the periphery of the camp, the Angelina Jolie Boarding School for Girls provides a unique, and safe environment for young girls to acquire a quality education. Students are admitted to the school based on their proven academic success and an assessment of their vulnerability. Throughout their four years in boarding school, students are afforded the opportunity to focus on their studies without hindrance from overwhelming domestic responsibilities. In addition, the physical aspect of the campus is highly secure with fenced borders and guards, ensuring that the girls are protected from physical harm.

In the harsh geographical and social environment of Kakuma, the Angelina Jolie Boarding School is an oasis for hundreds of young girls. Yet this sanctuary is temporary. Once the students graduate from eighth grade, they are placed back into the camp and continue along the selfsame path they would have taken had they not attended boarding school at all. Not only are they reintroduced to the grave challenges the school was designed to protect them from, but many of the fears and dangers are compounded; as a female student gets older, she is more likely to be a candidate for early marriage, to be pressured into having unwanted sex (and thus more at risk of becoming pregnant or HIV infected), and to have to travel greater distances to reach school, increasing her exposure to physical assault.

Without a secondary boarding school in the camp, the futures of the Jolie Primary graduates are as constrained as the hundreds of other refugees graduating from the day schools. If the girls are extremely lucky, they may receive one of very few scholarships available to refugees that will enable them to attend a Kenyan boarding school. A far more likely scenario is that they will be admitted into one of two camp day schools (though even here there are not enough slots for all qualified girls) where they will be financially and culturally challenged to compete with their male classmates. As a consequence of their all-consuming domestic obligations, their physical vulnerability, and peer and family pressures to marry and begin a family, many will drop out. Bearing in mind that there are thousands of girls in the Kakuma Refugee Camp that will never even complete their primary school education, this loss of human potential from among those most likely to succeed is a devastating blow to the refugee community.


The hopes and dreams of all of the girls that we met, expressed so poignantly and articulately, reminded us that confinement within the refugee camp should be temporary. Yet, the reality is that succeeding generations are born into the camp, the population becomes more entrenched, conditions deteriorate, aid diminishes, and hope dies. Currently, UNHCR promulgates three durable solutions aimed at transitioning an individual or family out of the refugee camp: repatriation to the country of origin, integration into the host country, or third-country resettlement. These solutions are, for all intents and purposes, the only options available; yet because of the political, social, and economic complexities of each one, they are frequently unenforceable. The use of refugee camps began over 60 years ago following World War II. In a 2011 report, UNHCR announced that, “the number of forcibly displaced people around the world has reached a 15-year high.” Last year there were 15.4 million refugees; due to the protracted nature of the camp, nearly 7 million have lived in the camp setting for over 10 years, some nearly 30 years. Alternative solutions are desperately needed and education is increasingly showing promise.

A growing body of research supports a clear rational for investment in post-primary education. This call for a reorientation of refugee education underscores the impact such benefits can have not only for the individual, but also for the community at large. In a recent article focused on higher learning in the Kakuma and Dadaab camps, Laura Ashley Wright and Robyn Plasterer highlight the community impact of refugee education within the context of repatriation and local integration through, “increased tax revenue, better national health, reduced population growth, stronger government, and improved technology” (2010). A recent Global Education Cluster report entitled, Education: An Essential Component of a Humanitarian Response maintains that education is an equally powerful intervention for the individual, with long-term societal impact. The authors explain that education can assist with recovery by “prepare[ing] young generations for the future through improved overall learning conditions, despite the crisis, and thereby build[ing] a solid foundation for the country’s development.”

As we move forward, we must continue to explore ways in which education can be used as a fourth durable solution, as a means to end confinement in the outdoor prisons that are today’s refugee camps. As Paul and I have learned through hundreds of interviews with students, headmasters, community leaders, and representatives from relief organizations, education is as much a protection tool as it is a means for learning and empowerment. From here, we must continue to invest in partnerships dedicated to promoting post-primary education as a proven way to break the cycle of generations born and raised in the refugee camp.

-Paul & Matt


Thursday, February 2, 2012

We arrived in Nairobi last Saturday after a three-hour flight from Johannesburg and are extremely fortunate to be staying with good friends of Lynn’s. THANK YOU, Mr. and Mrs. Koome for your kindness and generosity in hosting us during our stay. Since our arrival, Paul and I have had the pleasure of speaking with a wide range of representatives from organizations that provide educational and other services to refugees and other vulnerable populations.

On Monday morning, we met with Mr. George Thang’wa, Regional Program Manager for Refugee Education Trust (RET), an organization delivering an array of educational programs and initiatives for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and returnees in 17 countries, including two in Africa – Chad and Burundi. Mr. Thang’wa explained that RET is currently in the process of conducting a needs assessment in Kenya, working to determine which types of programs they would be optimally positioned to implement.

A needs assessment is a careful and methodical process by which one investigates the problems within a particular organization or community in order to determine which types of programs or initiatives may best help address the identified needs. This process, Mr. Thang’wa emphasized, is crucial in the development and humanitarian sector in order to ensure that redundancy of efforts is minimized. Through the assessment, one identifies gaps in services and is then able to tailor one’s efforts to fit neatly within that space.

As we discussed our upcoming mission to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, we were encouraged to strategize our visit from the position of a needs assessment. As one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in the world, Kakuma is represented by an infinite number of relief agencies providing an extraordinary range of services. Fresh from our visit to the Dukwi Refugee Camp in Botswana, Paul and I knew that we would need to remain open to new ideas as we learned about the actual needs of the refugees from those most directly involved.

Following our meeting with Mr. Thang’wa, Paul and I met with representatives from Windle Trust Kenya (WTK), including the Executive Director, Dr. Marangu Njogu. WTK provides and promotes quality education and training for refugees in Kenya, as well as for disadvantaged citizens of Kenya, with the aim of transforming the lives of individuals and bringing positive growth to their communities. In both the Kakuma and Dadaab Refugee Camps, WTK provides an impressive array of services, including, but not limited to, English language instruction, scholarship programs, remedial education, and girl-child educational programs. WTK also works closely with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) to offer 50 students per year university scholarships and resettlement in Canada. Within this partnership, WTK is responsible for implementing the transitional program for the WUSC scholarship recipients, which includes everything from cultural and social training to workshops in practical skills such as computer literacy and conversational English – key considerations in the development of transition programs for our high school age scholarship recipients, as well.

After introductions, the meeting shifted focus to the preparation for our visit to Kakuma. Throughout our stay in the camp, Windle Trust has offered to dedicate two of their representatives to host us, as well as to guide our assessment efforts. Dr. Marangu stressed the importance of maintaining an evaluative position and to consider the feasibility of providing scholarships firstly on an in-country basis, then using that pool of students to identify future candidates for U.S. based scholarships. This approach, Dr. Marangu explained, would ensure that many more qualified students would gain access to high-quality education and would also better prepare students for the transition to U.S. schools. Paul and I found this tactic particularly interesting as it offered a unique approach, tailoring our efforts toward filling an identified gap as Mr. Thang’wa from Refugee Education Trust had suggested, and utilizing the expertise of Windle Trust in its implementation.

On Tuesday morning we met with Ms. Manal Stulgaitis, Director of Africa Programs for Refuge Point, a non-governmental organization providing health, community, and protection services to urban refugees in Nairobi; and Ms. Maria Fernandes, Refuge Point Program Manager. Up to that point, Paul and I had been focusing exclusively on refugee populations living within the camp setting, but this meeting opened the door to a host of new possibilities, and challenges, to assist equally vulnerable children.

Urban refugees are those individuals who have fled their country of origin and have ultimately settled outside of a camp and into an urban environment. In Nairobi, for instance, some of these individuals and/or families may have arrived after spending a period of time in either the Kakuma or Dadaab camps, or they may have come directly to the city from fleeing their country. It’s often the case that refugees will move to the city seeking protection or opportunities absent from the camp environment. While these individuals maintain their refugee status, they lose out on most services provided by UNHCR such as food rations, protection, shelter, education, etc. Refuge Point attempts to meet some of these needs by providing direct health care services out of their Nairobi clinic, offering individual and group counseling, providing life skills training, conducting censuses to identify the refugee population in order to link them to existing services, as well as working with UNHCR on resettlement options.

The timing of our meeting was rather fortuitous as we learned that Refuge Point was currently in the process of assessing their educational programming and hoping to expand their services. Assisting urban refugee children with their education, we learned, is actually quite challenging because a significant portion of the population is made up of unaccompanied minors, many of whom become street children. Because of the nature of their existence, the mere act of locating these children is a challenge, and even when they can be tracked, following up with them is almost impossible. These children are invisible and without long-term shelter and support services, getting them into school just isn’t reasonable.

However, there remain large numbers of refugee children that could significantly benefit from additional education supports, particularly at the secondary-school level. In Kenya, students take a national exam after completing the equivalent of 8th grade in the U.S. The results from this exam determine which type of secondary school they are eligible to attend: District, Provincial, or National with the latter being the best and most expensive. Regardless of the school they are “called” to, the school fees and indirect costs of attending (books, uninforms, transportation, supplies, etc.) are prohibitive for refugee families that are barely getting by. For the majority of urban refugee children, post-primary education is utterly out of reach, dooming them to a lifetime of poverty and servitude and leaving the girls in especially vulnerable circumstances. Even as we met, Refuge Point was exploring ways to remediate this precarious situation.

Later that evening, we had an amazing dinner, hosted by the Koomes, and attended by Mr. Jerry McCann, Deputy Director-General for Operations at Interpeace and his wife, Mrs. Elizabeth McCann, as well as Mr. Simon Nyabwengi, National Director of Habitat for Humanity, Kenya. Interpeace is an independent, international peacebuilding organization and strategic partner of the United Nations, aimed at “building lasting peace through inclusive and nationally-led processes of change”. Habitat for Humanity, Kenya has been working in the country since 1982 and has helped over 5000 families construct affordable housing and has also assisted with the resettlement of over 200 IDPs following the 2007/2008 post-election violence.

We were very fortunate to gain such an intimate perspective on the inner workings of these two stellar organizations, along with advice on leveraging support from various actors and stakeholders within multiple levels of programming. Additionally, Mr. & Mrs. McCann and Mr. Nyabwengi offered invaluable insight on how to actively involve donors and other interested individuals in the organization’s programming and initiatives – an absolutely key component of program development.  Overall it was a wonderful evening of inspired conversation with some very exceptional people.

On Wednesday morning we met with Ms. Lizzie Chongoti, Director of the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF), a Kenya-specific organization that “assists bright children from poor families and disadvantaged communities to access education by providing scholarships and other opportunities at the secondary school level”. An organization with a mission almost identical to that of the Vulnerable Scholars Program, Ms. Chongoti’s insight and guidance was a critical addition to our program development.

Since its inception in 2001, HBEF has awarded 200 secondary school scholarships, 110 of which were awarded in 2011. Expanding significantly over the last few years, HBEF now considers applicants from the Eastern, Nyanza, and Rift Valley Provinces of Kenya. Much of this growth, Ms. Chongoti pointed out, came from the success and popularity of the 2011 Emmy-nominated documentary, A Small Act, which focused on the work of HBEF. With this increase in moral and financial support, more and more students have been eligible to apply for assistance. Paul and I had the opportunity to learn about the intricacies of the application and selection process and were impressed by the comprehensive and meticulous protocol at each stage. As we move forward with the development of VSP, we will be grateful for the guidance and knowledge gained through our meeting with Ms. Chongoti.

For our final meeting of the week we met with Ms. Margaret Wanjohi, Director of the Starehe Girls’ Center in Nairobi, a leading secondary boarding school for girls from disadvantaged backgrounds throughout Kenya. A true home away from home, the school currently serves 360 top female students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend secondary school due to financial hardship. All school fees and indirect costs are completely covered by fundraising efforts and private sponsors.

Starehe Girls’ Center is truly a special school. Ms. Wanjohi explained how each incoming student is paired with a student from the class above theirs. These bonds persist from year to year, effectively creating a mentoring family of four students. In addition, the school is open to students year round, just as their home would be. Even more, when students graduate, they’re able to continue to receive support from the school while they pursue college or employment. Once a student has physically moved on from Starehe,  she is always welcome to return or reach out for help, if needed.

This type of safe and empowering environment, Paul and I immediately realized, was exactly what would launch a refugee student into realizing their full potential. We talked with Ms. Wanjohi about the prospect of accepting refugee students and she was fully supportive so long as the student qualified academically. She then equipped us with the necessary documents to take with us to Kakuma.

As Paul and I prepare to fly to Kakuma tomorrow, we are hugely energized by the incredible meetings we have had this week. Each and every person we have had the opportunity to speak with has gone out of their way to an extraordinary degree to assist us in the development of this program.  From Gaborone to Nairobi, we could not have asked for more kindness or support.

-Paul & Matt


January 27, 2012

This evening I am blogging from the beautiful campus of the African Leadership Academy  in Johannesburg, South Africa. ALA was founded in 2008 by Fred Swaniker, Chris Bradford, Peter Mombaur, and Acha Leke with the mission to develop the next generation of African leaders. Their students represent 42 countries throughout Africa and are equally divided between male and female. The African Leadership Academy is one of the of the top secondary schools on the continent and have alumni attending the best colleges and universities in the world, including Yale, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, and Stanford.

Paul and I arrived yesterday evening after the 6-hour drive from Gaborone, Botswana. Our purpose in visiting ALA was to meet with a variety of representatives (administrators, faulty, students) to learn more about the practicalities of recruiting students (especially disadvantaged students) from throughout the continent, how ALA transitions and supports those students, and how ALA measures success pertaining to leadership practice and a return to Africa for college graduates. Additionally, we were anxious to discuss the ways in which the Vulnerable Scholars Program could implement enrichment programs in refugee camps that would best prepare students for ALA and/or similar schools on the continent, as well as in the US. Our objectives were most certainly met.

Paul and I began the day at 7:00 by having breakfast in the dining hall with Ms. Sebabatso Manoeli (Sabi), the school’s Events Coordinator. She shared with us a range of pertinent information about the school and the student body. We learned that at ALA, ethical leadership is valued above all else and that many of the students are currently engaged in a variety of on-campus leadership activities, including the running of a high-quality commodities shop, a micro-finance bank that offers loans and services to other student enterprises, and a nonprofit organization focused on using the arts as a mechanism for environmental education. Ms. Manoeli also explained that many of the school’s alumni are already making great strides in their home communities, and around the world, even though the first class to graduate was just two years prior. A most poignant example is the case of the student who, immediately upon graduation, returned to his former refugee camp in Uganda and opened a school. With help from others, he physically built the school, hired staff, procured the supplies, and developed a curriculum for the students in the camp. This young man is currently attending Westminster College in Missouri.

After speaking with Sabi, we met with Mr. Michael Gyampo, the Deputy Principal, and Mr. Tinacho Chitongo, one of the Admissions Associates at ALA, to discuss the qualifications necessary for entry to the school. We learned that ALA looks for five essential qualities: Leadership Potential, Entrepreneurial Spirit, a Passion for Africa, a Commitment to Service, and Academic Achievement. Through our conversations with Mr. Gyampo and Mr. Chitongo, it became abundantly clear that the school truly seeks young people who are already making a difference in their communities. One of the first questions a student is asked during the application process is to describe a need they have identified in their community, and then explain how they have addressed this problem. This opening question is key to identifying students not only with the awareness of local, regional, and global problems, but students who also possess the passion, initiative and creativity to act upon their concerns.

Next we met with Ms. Laura Kaub, one of the College Counselors who helps identify appropriate colleges and universities for students after their ALA experience, as well as assists students with logistical matters such as SAT and TOEFL preparation, college applications, and other practical requirements. We also had the opportunity to discuss the numerous challenges surrounding both the academic and cultural components of transitioning from the students’ secondary school in their home country to boarding school at ALA, as well as from ALA to colleges in the United States. Ms. Kaub’s experience and guidance will extrapolate to the development of transitional programs in the refugee camps and communities where VSP will be working, as well as to transitional programs developed at TerraShare for VSP students. Ms. Kaub’s passion for the success of her students was absolutely inspiring, though I must say that every teacher and staff person we spoke with at ALA displayed a level of commitment utterly unique in our experiences with educational institutions.

During lunch we met with four current students – three gentlemen who had previously lived in refugee camps before attending ALA, and one young lady from a highly disadvantaged community who, as a teenager, had launched an income-generating program for girls and women living in a refugee camp in Uganda. All four of these students were incredible. Each of them, like all of the students we met throughout the day, were mature, intelligent, confident, articulate, and had a genuine passion to better the lives of others. As with the girls we met at the Dukwi Refugee Camp, these students have overcome the types of challenges that most of us have only read about with shock and disbelief. One young man from Rwanda described how, as a young boy, he and his older sister had to flee the refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of violence and instability. The two of them lived in the bush for two years on their own without any assistance. This young man later lived as a street child, sleeping in the open and selling hand-made crafts just to survive. After years without education, he was given an opportunity to go to school where he excelled (to everyone’s amazement) far beyond his peers. Now he is attending one of the best secondary schools in Africa and has dreams of working in the Rwandan government to ensure that no child has to endure the horrors that he experienced.

Shortly thereafter we met with the school’s principal, Ms. Jenny Ketley. Through this conversation, we were able to further explore the emphasis on leadership that prevails during the selection process, as well as within the cultural and academic environment at ALA. Ms. Ketley explained that while a student’s history of academic success is a key component in ALA’s recruitment policy, the student’s active leadership and resolve may compensate to a certain degree for deficiencies in their past academic performance. In discussing the Vulnerable Scholars Program and the enrichment programs we are working to develop in the refugee camps, Ms. Ketley suggested that ALA students would be a good source of interns for these programs. Of all the thoughtful advice and tireless support we had received from everyone at ALA throughout the day, this was the greatest gift we could ever have imagined and brings these important programs that much closer to struggling students in the camps.

Throughout the day, Paul and I had the opportunity to participate in a variety of classes. In Leadership & Entrepreneurship, students were discussing the key concepts that comprise Emotional Intelligence; in the African Studies class for upper level students, they were discussing geopolitical power and its relationship to the determination of statehood; and in the African Studies class for first-year students, discussion focused on the historical context of the transatlantic slave trade and its long-term impact on African development. In each of the classes, Paul and I were struck by the level of engagement, understanding and insight displayed by all of the students. Even more, the students were respectful and supportive, not only of their teachers, but also toward each other. For us, it was especially fascinating to listen to the variety of accents from students throughout the continent; it was actually quite beautiful and a testament to the magic of diversity.

At the end of the day, we ate dinner with four students, one in her second year at ALA, and the other three in their first year. We talked with them about TerraShare and the Vulnerable Scholars Program, and they shared their enthusiasm and support. These students offered quality suggestions and valuable feedback for how to support the children in refugee camps. As we sat around the table talking about VSP and about the students’ interests and aspirations in business, science, and medicine, it was easy to forget that we were talking with teenagers and not juniors and seniors in college. As with the students in the Dukwi camp, each of these students had an altruistic basis for working within these disciplines and without exception, they all intended to apply to at least one Ivy League school. Honestly, reaching for anything less would have been selling themselves short.

The students we’ve met at ALA are exceptional. As we walked around the campus, the vast majority of them greeted us, and quite a number of them stopped to shake our hands and to welcome us to their school. We learned through our conversation at dinner that this behavior was not unusual. Our hosts explained that all of the students treat each other with kindness and respect, that they help one another overcome their challenges together, that they all arrive with their own histories, but they leave ALA as one family.

Our short time here at the African Leadership Academy has allowed us to witness the true success that comes from nurturing the intelligence and kindness and commitment of our youth. We leave for Kenya tomorrow, hopeful of continuing our relationship with ALA and inspiring and preparing more vulnerable scholars for admission to similar schools on the continent and in the United States.

-Paul & Matt



January 24, 2012

Today I am writing from the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Gaborone, Botswana. Over the last couple days, Paul and I have been working from here as we conclude our meetings with representatives and prepare the next steps for VSP programming in the Dukwi Refugee Camp. While our physical presence in Botswana will soon be coming to end, our commitment to the students we have met and our dedication to the VSP mission is greater than ever.

United Nations Headquarters in Gaborone, Botswana

As our final post from Botswana, I want to share our most recent experiences with students from the SOS Children’s Village, as well as our participation in a live radio broadcast with Gaborone’s local station, Duma FM.

Two days after our return from Dukwi, Paul and I met with Agnes Malanda, the Fundraising and Communications Manager at the SOS Children’s Village Association of Botswana. You may recall from a previous blog post that we met with representatives from SOS, but this time we were able to schedule a meeting with students. As a refresher, SOS is an international organization operating in 133 countries providing family services and educational support to orphans and vulnerable children. In this case, Ms. Malanda arranged for us to meet with 11 girls at the home of one of the students whose family is enrolled in the Family Strengthening Program, a new initiative of SOS that targets children in highly unstable situations, with the goal of providing support and training to prevent the total disintegration of the family.

I feel it worth noting that Gaborone, and to a greater extent much of Botswana, is quite developed. The majority of roads are wide and newly paved, there are endless shopping centers and malls, and throughout the city there are more and more large, modern buildings under construction. I mention this to create a point of contrast because the neighborhood we visited to interview the SOS girls was not at all like the Gaborone with which we were familiar.

Upon arrival, Paul and I were immediately struck by the physical state of this struggling community. The homes were similar to those in the refugee camp in terms of their size, structural soundness, and the fact that their sheet metal roofs were haphazardly secured by tires, cinder blocks, and other heavy objects. However, there was little vegetation and it appeared that most of the homes were situated on plots of desert-like sand, top coated with layers of trash and debris. (We later learned that garbage pick-up in Gaborone is prioritized to the more affluent areas of the city.) Everywhere we looked people were socializing outside their homes – children playing, teenagers chatting – lots of movement and energy.

After being introduced to our hosts, we located a spot under a large tree, about 10 feet from the outhouse, as the best place to conduct our interviews. The location offered a good amount of shade, but the ground around the tree and throughout much of the yard was completely littered with garbage. While we began to set up our equipment, one of the neighborhood women took a rake and cleared the trash, adding it to an existing heap just adjacent to the outhouse.

Once we were all set up, we conducted two group interviews with the students: one group consisted of older girls in junior secondary school, and the other of girls currently in their last year of primary school. As with the students we met in the Dukwi Refugee Camp, these girls possessed a huge amount of potential, but were faced with almost insurmountable challenges. For instance, students from both groups explained the difficulty of balancing their household responsibilities with their studies and homework from school. A common refrain, from Dukwi to Gaborone, was the inequitable distribution of power between males and females, most painfully between boys and girls.  Girls are the primary caretakers of the home and younger children and responsible for all of the domestic chores; their education is a low priority that is often sacrificed after completion of primary school, and their needs are entirely subordinate to those of boys in the family.

In juxtaposition to the challenges these girls face are their altruistic aspirations and dreams such as wanting to be doctors, lawyers, social workers, and business owners. The girls pointedly explained how working in these professions would benefit their home communities or others suffering around the world. After completing the interviews, we discussed ways in which the girls could work to improve their grades as well as the importance of extracurricular activities and service work in improving their personal and academic credentials.

On another note altogether, I want to briefly describe our unique experience with Duma FM this morning. Madoda Nasha from UNHCR, and Paul and I drove across town to discuss TerraShare, the Vulnerable Scholars Program, and our time in the Dukwi Refugee Camp with talk host, Cathy Malejane. This was the first time that either Paul or I had been on a live radio show, let alone a Botswana radio-cast, so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect.

Shortly after arriving we entered the recording studio where things began to move rather quickly. It was fascinating to watch Cathy work and prepare for our interview. As she was welcoming Madoda, Paul, and me, she was also queuing commercials and music, and becoming hyper-vigilant of the time. At one point during our introductory conversation, she paused us, put on her headphones, read a commercial script for Western Union, and then with perfect fluidity, continued her conversation with us. All in all, it was quite impressive.

The first few minutes of being on the air were slightly nerve wracking, but once I realized that we were all just having a conversation, it was easy to forget that people from around the country were listening. Shifting between Setswana (national language) and English (official language), Madoda offered listeners an overview of the educational priorities for UNHCR in the Dukwi Refugee Camp, which included increased opportunities for secondary and tertiary education. Paul and I discussed the aim and mission of the Vulnerable Scholars Program, as well as our experience in the camp. We were delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Cathy, as she was patient and fair with us, in addition to being genuinely interested in the challenges facing refugee students. She has requested that we stay in touch with her as the program develops.

By tomorrow, Paul and I will have finalized our plans to visit the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, and then we are off for Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday. We are greatly indebted to the staff of UNHCR, Skill Share, and SOS Children’s Villages for their guidance and support, and are thankful to all the amazing people we have met and worked with in Botswana.

-Paul & Matt



January 20, 2012

Dumela everyone! Between January 16th and 20th, Paul and I stayed in the Dukwi Refugee Camp in the Central District of Botswana. While there, we met with a variety of groups and stakeholders within the camp, including students, parents, teachers, community leaders, representatives from the Botswana government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff. Below you will find details from our meetings and interviews, as well as our reactions and thoughts from our time in the camp; all of this has been broken down by day. We encourage you to read through the posts and to feel free to send any comments or questions our way. As always, thank you for your continued support!

Friday, January 20, 2012

After a few hours of sleep, we awoke at 5:30 in order to be on the road by 7:00. With representatives from UNHCR and Skill Share, we arrived at Mmadinare Senior Secondary School (MSSS) around 11:00 and were immediately struck by the sheer size of the school. Built in April 2011, the school cost $74.5 million (USD). When we entered the administration building, it was clear we were in a state of the art facility, undoubtedly equipped with the most current technology.

We were escorted to the headmaster’s office and met with him and the deputy headmaster. During this brief meeting, we learned of numerous infrastructural and technological inadequacies. Due to a shortfall of governmental funding, a significant amount of academic space had been removed from the development plan, leaving an imbalance of residential housing in relation to the number of students able to be accommodated in the classrooms. We also learned that the school was not equipped with the internet, that there was no school website, and that neither the administrators nor the teachers had school email addresses. In addition, there were not enough teachers or books for many of the classes.

Students of Mmadinare Senior Secondary School with their Headmaster

After introductions, we were brought to a classroom to meet with 14 students from the refugee camp in Dukwi. We asked the students to go around the room and tell us what their goals were and what they would like to do after secondary school. Without exception they all wished to apply to college and many of them hoped to work in finance, medicine, social work, and even art. Yet when we asked them what the next step would be for them to attend university, there was complete silence. It was a terrible reality check for us all. Just moments before they had all raised their hands, smiling broadly as they described their aspirations to go on to college and live out their dreams, but all of them knew the true nature of their situation. As the students at the camp had explained, unless refugee students receive a full scholarship to university, there are no options for them. We asked them if they were aware of any scholarship opportunities for universities, but none of them did.

All of the students then shared with us their grades from the most recent national exam and for their most recent terms. The average grades for these students were Cs and Bs, a serious drop from their averages in the junior secondary school that they had attended while living in the camp. In exploring the reasons for their decline in performance, the students reiterated what we had learned earlier regarding the lack of books and teachers. Indeed, we learned that in some classes, receiving rudimentary instruction or additional help was not even an option. Without instructors, students needed to teach themselves the subject matter from the text books, and because of a lack of books, they did not always have access to the material.

Over the next half hour or so, we talked about ways to improve their grades and about the importance of extracurricular activities, stressing the importance of academic commitment, leadership involvement, and altruistic endeavors. We also discussed the benefits of study groups, student organizations, and clubs, as they would provide academic, communal, and social supports for the girls. In concluding the meeting, we offered to assist the students in identifying scholarship programs they might consider as they worked to improve their grades. We ended the session by exchanging emails and selecting one of the girls as the primary contact person for all of the students without email addresses. In parting, the headmaster requested a group portrait of himself with all of the refugee girls at Mmadinare, which we were happy to provide.

Along the road back to Gaborone, we stopped at a vendor stationed on the side of the road. There, our UNHCR colleague purchased a large bag of Mopane worms, or caterpillars. The insects are covered with salt before being dried under the Botswana sun. Paul and I both taste-tested a handful and can truthfully attest that once the mental challenge of eating a caterpillar is overcome, Mopane worms are actually quite flavorful; in fact, if you didn’t know better, you would think you were eating sunflower seeds.

-Paul & Matt

Thursday, January 19, 2012

As we prepared to leave the guesthouse bright and early for our scheduled interviews, we learned that we would need to get ourselves, and all of our equipment, across the camp on our own. Our host, Ms. Healy, handed Paul the keys to her truck – a 4WD Toyota with the steering on the right and the stick shift on the left.  In much of Africa, this is, of course, the norm, and one drives on the left side of the road, as well.  With slight misgivings, we loaded up and drove with supreme caution down the dirt lanes, shifting awkwardly, on what seemed the wrong side of the road, all of ½ mile to the UN compound, arriving without incident. It was some brief comic relief before the start of another poignant round of interviews.

Our first duty was to set up our equipment just outside the compound and prepare the set for the interviews. In order to ensure that we were able to meet with all six girls, in addition to making home visits for five students and one community leader, we chose to divide the students into three groups of two each. Ultimately, pairing the students provided more detailed description on many of the topics, as the girls would react and respond to the thoughts of each other. I thought it would be interesting and beneficial to share some of the themes and conversation highlights from interviews with the girls:

My greatest challenge has been coming all the way from my country, Somalia, but still I’ve tried to live well in this country: I’ve made friends with different people, Batswana, Zimbabweans, all different people. I’ve really had time to change my life here because I know that back home it’s really difficult and I can’t manage to go back so I really have to get used to staying here for some time in case I never can go back to my country.

What I like most about school is that I get boosted up physically, mentally, and socially. And I also get some other information: in our daily lives as human beings, I also get to know a lot about the way other people are. For instance, our school is full of different people from different places of which I learn different cultures, different activities that people do. I think at school I’ve been able to learn a lot from the way other people interact with me.

My greatest challenge was the time when my parents lost their jobs back home [because of election violence] and I was really hopeless because I wouldn’t be able to continue my education. My dream was always to be an educated somebody; there is no way you can excel in life without being educated so it was really a challenge when my family had to just stay at home, doing nothing. Where my friends, who were wealthy enough to pay for their school fees, were always going to school. It really troubled me, but actually I thank God because now in the camp, I can go to school without my parents paying an expense, just free. So that’s how everything worked on my side.

I really want to become a doctor because at this moment in time the world is really suffering. There are a lot of diseases around here [in the camp] and some are being discovered time and again, and by being a doctor I might improve the health around the world – my dream is to also find some cures for incurable diseases such as HIV/AIDS. By completing my education I hope to fulfill my dream of becoming a doctor.

[Leaving my family for secondary school in the US] would be difficult at first, but it can change my life – my life and my family’s lives. Right now, my mom and dad are not working, they’re stuck at home and I can do something. I know I will – I will do something to help them. I know living [abroad] will be hard at first, but I will get used to it because I want that. If you just sit at home [in the camp] what will come? Nothing. You have to take chances; you have to take risks. That’s what I want in life. If it’s something that I want, I have to get it. I have to help them. They need my help… I don’t think I can let them down. I can’t… I can’t.

Later in the afternoon, Paul and I began the home visits. In order to protect the privacy of those we met, I will only refer to them through the first letter of the individual’s first name.

The mother of one of the students we met with

As we traveled throughout the camp visiting homes, we were guided by “D”, one the students we had interviewed earlier in the week.  “D” and her family had fled Burundi years ago and had spent some time in a refugee camp in Malawi before traveling again to the camp in Dukwi in search of medical care for the father. “D” began the tour by escorting us to her home where we were greeted by a large handwritten sign on her family’s sheet metal gate that read, “Welcome Home”. We went inside and were warmly greeted by “D’s” mother, father, and three little sisters. The house was slightly larger (approximately 10’ X 16’) than the average home in the camp, and was of the wattle and daub construction we had seen previously – basically a woven lattice of sticks, covered with mud. While most of the roof was protected by sheet metal weighted with rocks and cinder blocks, there was a large section of the home covered only by tarps. This area was secured with large tree branches, a car tire, and a few large rocks. Just to the side of the house was a small structure that served as the kitchen. Looking inside, we saw a dark, smoky room with a small cook fire smoldering on the ground and shelves and buckets filled with grains, produce, and supplies.

After introducing us to her family, “D” walked us around to the back of their lot. In awe, we found ourselves in a lush, jungle-like area. As we walked through the tropical vegetation, “D” pointed out the mango, guava, and banana trees, explaining that her father and family had cultivated the land when they arrived in the camp about a decade ago. What was most surprising was the stark contrast with the other properties we had seen in the camp. While many of the other homes had thriving gardens, none of the ones we saw supported such rich, dense vegetation. After visiting, we thanked “D’s” family and started to leave, but not before her mother had given us a gift bag filled with mangos and guavas.

The next home that we visited was also situated on a relatively large plot of land in comparison with the other homes in the camp. We met with “M”, who introduced us to her family who had fled Zimbabwe five years earlier. “M” welcomed us inside her home and she and her mother described their living arrangements. There were two main wattle and daub structures that made up their home: one that contained three tidy bedrooms and a small storage section and another that contained a room for food storage and a kitchen. The kitchen, which was similar to the one at “D’s”, consisted of shelves and an area designated for food storage, and a section of floor with a small cook fire.

“M’s” home had a thin coating of cement for a floor, a rarity in the camp. She explained that her family is sometimes able to afford cement with the proceeds from their crops. “M’s” father then pointed out the mound of dirt just outside their home that they use to create mud for the walls. If they are able to obtain cement, they may add a bit to the mud before placing it on the walls for additional reinforcement.

“M” then showed us around their property. Like “D’s” family, they have mango and guava trees, as well as several other fruit trees. (I should note at this point that because of the long-term internment of the majority of refugees in Dukwi, the food rationing policy has a built-in expectation that the refugees will grow food to supply the bulk of their food needs.) “M” led us around their patch of maize and wide assortment of other crops. Then, as we passed by the outhouse, “M” smiled and pointed out the makeshift shower that she had recently installed: connected to the tap located in their yard was a hose that ran up the side of the outhouse and threaded through a hole, serving effectively as the showerhead. As we thanked “M” and her family for welcoming us into their home, “M’s” father presented us with handfuls of homegrown mangos, and expressed his appreciation for our visit and his concern and hopes for his children.


Paul receiving a generous gift of mangoes while speaking with a student and her family during a home visit

Because the remaining students had yet to return from school, we took time to stop by the home of one of the community leaders, “S”. This was the gentleman who suggested at Tuesday’s morning meeting that parents should “chew before [they] swallow” in reference to the Vulnerable Scholars Program. After that meeting, “S” had met with Paul and invited him to his home to see his artwork. When we arrived, it was clear “S” had been expecting us as he was sitting outside with his beautiful hand-carved figurines on display. The carvings were exquisite: two giraffes with locked necks carved from a single piece of wood, as well as a number of intricately carved elephants. “S” then showed us around his small enclosure, a plot much smaller than the two homes we had visited earlier. Behind his home grew a small patch of maize for his family.

“S” lives with his wife and young daughter, having fled the violence in Zimbabwe during the 2008 elections. We asked him about his thoughts from the meeting earlier in the week, as well as his expressed support for the program even though his daughter was far too young to qualify for secondary school scholarships. “S” explained that, at times, the adults in the camp can be overly political, and that his intention had been to lead the discussion back to the important matter of opportunities for the children. In terms of his support for VSP, “S” explained that life in the camp is limited, often hopeless, and that opportunities for children to leave in order to become better educated and lead normal lives should be embraced. Unfortunately, our time with “S” was brief, but still offered a crucial perspective from an important leader in the community.

From there, we drove to “E’s” home to meet with her and her family. We were introduced to her parents, her older brother, and her younger sister, who like so many others had been forced to flee Zimbabwe during the deadly 2008 elections. “E” gave us a tour of the family’s property, which included three tents serving as temporary bedrooms, a semi-permanent home they were in the process of building in order to eliminate the need for tents, and the kitchen, which was physically separate from the house. Like the other kitchens we saw, there were shelves for food storage, and a small area in the center for a small cook fire. “E” explained that the tents often leaked when it rained, and in fact, the previous night there had been heavy rains that had knocked out power to the camp. “E” explained how she had needed to gather her belongings into the middle of the tent to protect them from the rain, though she could not prevent her mattress from becoming soaked.

Unlike the other homes we visited, “E’s” home is located on the edge of the camp, providing them with the opportunity to utilize arable land across the road in an unsettled area. “E’s” parents farm here; their garden was nearly an acre of precisely planted, carefully tended rows which included maize, peanuts, pumpkins, squash, and a variety of other fruits and vegetables. “E’s” parents are exceptionally hard workers: her father begins work in the garden in the early morning hours and ends the day working on the construction of their home. “E’s” mother volunteers with Skill Share and also works side by side with her husband building their house.  Both parents were professionals in Zimbabwe and lost everything, including the capacity to support and protect their children, when they were forced to flee. The father sees no hope or justice in their ability to return to their home and country in the foreseeable future.

Shortly thereafter, we visited “F” and were introduced to her family. “F” lives with her mother, an older cousin, and her cousin’s two small children, having fled Somalia when “F” was very young. Indeed, like many of her classmates, “F” has lived in the refugee camp nearly her entire life, which was truly a startling realization for us. We received a tour of the home, which has electricity and is slightly larger than the others we had visited. “F” then gave us a tour of her property and pointed out their tank for collecting water. “F’s” home also has sheet metal meticulously secured to the outside walls to protect it from the elements. As we followed “F” around, we noticed that her family did not grow any crops on their land at all. “F” explained that her family receives a small amount of support from family outside of the camp and is therefore able to purchase their fruits and vegetables from other refugees in the camp.  As with the other homes we visited, the home was immaculate though sparse beyond imagination.

Lastly, we visited “E” and “A”, two cousins living together with “A’s” mother and their respective sisters. “E” is doubly challenged by being both a refugee and an orphan and though she is exceptionally talented both academically and artistically, it is clear that these scars run deep. The girls showed us where they study and the bedroom that they share. Their two-room home is built of cinder blocks and they also have a tent that they use for cooking with gas (when it is available) and storage. Paul and I were struck by the number of books that these girls had throughout their home, but not too surprised as they are both such very bright students. Unlike any of the other homes we had visited earlier in the day, their home was covered in drawings and inspirational phrases such as “Knowledge is Power”. I asked the girls if they were the ones who drew the pictures and messages, but they stated that the artwork had been created by former camp residents. Following our all too brief visit with the family, we realized that the sun was setting quickly and that due to UNHCR regulations, our UN escort and host would need to return to the compound before dark.

We returned to the guesthouse, threw together some dinner, and prepared for our departure from the camp early the next morning. Friday would be another important day as we had an afternoon meeting with fourteen refugee students boarding at the Mmadinare Senior Secondary School (MSSS), several hundred kilometers from the camp.

-Paul & Matt

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

At 9:00AM, Paul and I met with additional stakeholders from the camp, including representatives from the Red Cross and the camp-based police department, as well as a handful of students and the education officials who we had met with the previous morning. As the majority of the individuals in the meeting were already familiar with the program, discussions focused on the practicalities of VSP implementation, including details of academic enrichment programs to be instituted in the camp. There was also increasing dialogue surrounding transitional programs aimed at ensuring that students are prepared to leave their communities and succeed in the US, socially, culturally, and emotionally. While the strategy for these programs is still being formulated, the meeting reinforced our commitment to ensure transitional courses in the camp prior to the students’ departure, in addition to a month-long program at TerraShare immediately before the students begin school.

Students gathering around the tap to wash up before lunch

In response to a question regarding Paul’s vision for enrichment programs in the camp, he highlighted his hope to tap into the knowledge-well that already exists among adults in the camp. He explained that there are teachers, professionals, and community leaders who may be interested in employment as tutors to supplement a student’s education, with the aim of raising the student’s competitiveness for scholarships locally, regionally, and internationally.

Directly after the meeting, Paul and I set up the video camera under a tree just outside the youth center. Over approximately seven hours in the Botswana summer sun, we interviewed five amazing students, most of who were between the ages of 14 and 15 years old. As mentioned in a previous post, all of the girls had such wonderfully huge hopes and dreams, each rooted in altruistic endeavors. When discussing the goals to help them achieve their dreams, all of the students tied them to education: excelling in high school and then college, and even graduate school. However, we also learned that a college education is rarely possible for these students despite their excellent grades. The government of Botswana does not provide refugees with financial aid; therefore, without a full scholarship, students are trapped in the camp indefinitely. This was painfully illustrated by the large number of secondary school graduates who are confined in the camp today, even though they possess the drive and ability to advance their education. What’s more, there are many residents of the camp who have college degrees, but due to their containment in the camp, they are legally prevented from working. We met one woman who is a qualified teacher, but cannot even work at the primary school in the camp because it is operated by the government of Botswana. Needless to say, short of repatriation to their country of origin, reintegration into their host community, or resettlement to a third country, education provides the only means by which these girls will ever be able to leave the camp.

For these students, education is paramount, though they face extraordinary challenges in the classroom and at home. The average class size is about 40 to 45 students to one teacher. On top of that, there are not enough classrooms in the school, forcing some classes to meet outside without any desks or chairs, whatsoever. For those classes meeting indoors, many of the rooms lack enough desks and chairs for all of the students, requiring them to sit two to a chair, in addition to sharing one desk. Furthermore, many of the classrooms have broken windows and/or lack doors. When it pours (as it regularly does in Botswana), the students, as well as their books, stationary, and class materials all get soaked, only adding to the already existing shortage of books and supplies. When the school loses electricity, which is a common occurrence, students must strain to see the chalkboard in the darkened rooms. Additionally, all too often there is no water at the school, meaning there is no school breakfast or lunch because there is no water to cook with, nor are there any functioning bathroom facilities. In these cases the students are usually all sent home – another lost day of education for children desperate to learn.

Paul Winter and Matt Vincent interviewing a student in the Dukwi Refugee Camp in Botswana


At home, the girls can face similar, and even graver, challenges. Their homes are even more vulnerable to flooding, especially those living in tents. The vast majority of homes have no electricity at all, requiring students to study outside prior to the sun setting at 7:30. However, when they get home from school, around 5:00, the girls are responsible for taking care of their siblings, cleaning the house, preparing dinner, washing the dishes, cleaning their school uniform, collecting firewood, etc.

When discussing how they cope with their challenges, the girls shared some common practices, including the use of prayer and relying on their faith to pull them through the hardest times. One student explained how she uses poetry to express herself, in addition to dancing and singing. Another student listens to music and tries to find little things to involve herself in that bring her happiness. Unlike many children in the US who may have counselors or their parents to turn to, these girls are often forced to manage the situations and feelings on their own. This is commonly because they don’t want to add additional burden to their parents, and because their parents’ hardships are also the source of many of their challenges.

When asked about the personal and familial challenges of leaving home for secondary school, the girls explained how most of them would be leaving home anyway to attend boarding school in the region. Secondary school in Botswana is divided into two segments: Junior and Senior Secondary Schools. Junior is the equivalent of 8th, 9th and 10th grade in the US, and Senior is the equivalent of 11th and 12th grade. Refugee girls go to a nearby government-run Junior Secondary School just outside the camp with local Botswana students, and then attend one of the many different government-run boarding schools for Senior Secondary School, also with local Botswana students. Most of the girls also mentioned that because their parents greatly value education, they would support their daughter’s absence even if that resulted in a redistribution of responsibilities at home. However, there were several students who were clearly ambivalent about attending boarding school so far from their families.

Each and every student we talked with had some degree of leadership experiences, and most were involved both in their schools and community. At school, the majority of girls have held positions of responsibility in the classroom as Monitors, overseeing the classroom when the teacher is called away or absent. Monitors, we learned, are elected by their peers, a recognition of the student’s maturity and fairness.

One of the students we spoke with living in the Dukwi Refugee Camp

Outside of the classroom, the girls were in a number of different clubs, including math and science clubs, sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) organizations, drama, and debate clubs. One student had actually created her own youth-led organization after an experience helping an older woman in the camp carry her groceries home. The young girl described how she witnessed this woman carrying heavy bags and being forced to place them down every few steps, in order to rest. After helping the woman carry her bags home, the girl realized that the woman also needed help cooking and cleaning around her home. Shortly thereafter, she gathered friends from the camp to create an organization aimed at helping older and disabled people in their community. Additionally, a number of students also speak publicly and regularly before their peers and adults on issues of HIV/AIDS, SGBV, and domestic violence.

In considering the interview question, “If you could speak with anyone in the world, dead or alive, whom would you choose and what would you talk about?” responses ranged from Mother Teresa to Alexander Graham Bell to Galileo Galilee. Galileo was admired for his resiliency and how even if the face of ridicule, persecution, and ultimately death, he held to his convictions. The student choosing Galileo went on to explain how in her own life she often faces teasing and harassment for expressing herself, for being unique and for being a refugee. She uses Galileo’s experiences as a source for her own strength. The student choosing Mother Teresa stated that her goal in life is to help the poor, those without access to medical care, people who are cast aside and forgotten.  She wished to ask Mother Teresa how she had succeeded, how she had endured.

When discussing what they do for fun, most of the students mentioned playing sports (netball, soccer, basketball), spending time with friends, reading, writing and making crafts. All of the girls talked about reading books as one of their favorite activities. When asked about the books that they like reading, the majority of them said that they like reading novels. We learned, however, that the camp badly lacks age-appropriate books for the girls. Time and again, the girls mentioned their favorite books being the Babysitter’s Club series, Nancy Drew, and Danielle Steele novels. Each of the girls professed their love of reading and their frustration with the limited choices available to them.

Without exception, every student mentioned their mother as their role model. One girl, however, mentioned her best friend as her role model in addition to her mother. Her best friend, she said, had helped her come out of her shell and to express herself through art. This best friend was also one of the most talented girls that we interviewed.

As the day of interviewing came to an end, we learned of another group of students who had arrived after school to meet with us. Due to a long day of meetings and interviews, in addition to diminishing daylight, we worked to schedule them for the following day – Thursday. From there we went back to the guesthouse for dinner and to process the days events and prepare the next day’s agenda. Evening meetings with Tiny, from Skill Share and Lynn, from UNHCR, always seemed to creep well past midnight before all the brainstorming, emailing, and write-ups were finally completed. Then it was up again at 7:00, mosquito bitten and ready to go.

-Paul & Matt

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

At 9:00AM, Paul and I met with education officials for the camp, including the  headmasters  from the kindergarten and primary school and one of the  community’s  pastors. Staff  members from UNHCR and Skill Share were also  present. The purpose  of the  meeting was to  provide the officials with an overview  of the program and to  address any of  their questions  and/or recommendations.  Right from our initial i  introductions we  understood that we were  going to face  formidable, though obviously  valid concerns, as the  headmaster of the primary  school stressed the meaning of her  name: the protector, one  who oversees and  protects  children. It didn’t take long after  Paul’s introduction to learn that there  was a certain amount of misinformation about  the project suggesting that we were there to provide scholarships for girls as young as 8 and 9 years of age to schools in the United States. While it took some time to dispel these concerns and an assortment of other rumors, when we were able to clarify and discuss the actual program, each of the education officials was very supportive and grateful for the opportunity for their students. Due to time constraints, we immediately transitioned from this meeting to a meeting that included other community leaders and parents.

                  Paul Winter (right) talking with Lynn Ngugi (left), UNHCR Country Representative for Botswana, and                                                                                             Madoda Nasha (center), UNHCR Protection Associate                                                                                

This meeting was held at the youth center, and when everybody had found a space to sit or stand we counted approximately 50 to 60 parents and community leaders anxious to hear about the program. Knowing from the previous meeting that there was a certain degree of confusion about our stated purpose for being at the camp, Paul made sure to carefully clarify our intentions within his initial introduction. He provided an overview of the program and explained that one of our primary goals was to interview girls who had been pre-selected by the headmasters as high-performing students. From there we began to field questions and comments from the parents, including information on the length of stay in the U.S. for scholarship recipients, requests for the program to include boys as candidates for scholarships, and whether their daughter would be able to make return trips to the camp during her enrollment in the program. After a number of these initial questions, the conversation was somewhat derailed when the focus shifted to the criteria that the headmasters had used to select students, and whether there may have been favoritism involved. There was a bit of back and forth between the headmasters and the parents, dramatically increasing the tension in the room. One of the fathers stood to address the other parents and emphatically called on them to stop turning on each other and to ensure that they not “swallow before [they] chew”. He went on to emphasize that, while everyone was clamoring for an opportunity for their particular child, “perhaps we should be asking how we know that it is truly safe to send our daughters to the United States? He concluded by suggesting that they “give these men a chance” and to “hear them out”. From there the conversation returned to the details of the program and to additional concerns. By the end of the meeting, quite a few community members stood to thank us for offering their children the opportunity to apply for scholarships that would provide them with quality education and the possibility of leaving the camp. They even requested that we include their younger children in the program. It was evident that education is a top priority within the community and that these adults were determined to help their children take advantage of opportunities that can mean the difference between a life of freedom and dignity, or one of imprisonment and fear.

Shortly thereafter, we met with UNHCR and Skill Share staff to debrief from the morning’s meetings and to gather for lunch. UNHCR employed a group of women from within the camp to cater the week’s lunches for all of the staff members working on our mission. We learned that Skill Share, through one of their vocational training classes, taught these women the skills to run a catering business. Though the opportunities are rare, they are hired whenever catering services are needed within the camp. And I must say, the food was phenomenal.

Later in the afternoon, Paul and I, along with the UNHCR and Skill Share teams, visited the junior secondary school just outside the camp for students who would be in 8th, 9th, and 10th grades in the US. We also had the opportunity to sit and talk with about 12 girls who have just begun the equivalent of 8th grade. We started by going around the room introducing ourselves and sharing with each other our dreams. All of the students had such wonderfully huge and inspiring dreams including becoming doctors, astronauts, lawyers, dentists, scientists, social workers, and nurses. In explaining the inspiration for their dreams, every one of the girls framed their reasoning within the desire to help others. It was truly remarkable. From there, Paul offered the girls an overview of the program and then opened the discussion to any questions, recommendations or comments that they had. While it took a few minutes for the girls to digest what they had just learned, they all began to ask pertinent questions, similar to those their parents had asked earlier that day. At the end of the meeting, one of the students concluded, beautifully:

“I would like to thank TerraShare, Skill Share, and UNHCR…We would like to pick up where you left off and to help, to reach out to other people in other parts of the world like other organizations working in situations like Haiti. We want also to be able to grow up and learn from what you are doing for us and help those people who are in our situation – to help those, too.”

Students from the Dukwi Junior Secondary School boarding the school bus to take them back to the refugee camp


When we arrived back at the camp in the early evening, Paul and I set up the video camera outside of the elementary school for our first interviews with the girls. Painted on the cinder blocks was a map of Africa that has become chipped and worn away over time. These initial interviews were tremendously enlightening and we learned in poignant detail about the hardships these students face within the camp and at school. Even more astounding was learning about how these incredible girls overcome these challenges and excel in their school and community. In describing the lives of the girls, we will only use the first letter of their first name to identify them.

Each day both girls wake up very early in the morning. “N” wakes up in time to go to church at 5:00. “D” also wakes up early in order to do additional research and to read ahead so that she is fully prepared for her classes. At 5:30 they both head to the bus stop and arrive a bit before 6:00. Classes are held from 7:00 to 2:00PM. From 2:00 to 4:10, students are allotted time to study and do their homework. After school, there is one bus that makes four round-trips between the school and the camp. When the girls get home from school, they both explained that they make dinner for their families, take care of their younger siblings, do the dishes, and clean up the house. If there is any free time after chores, they may continue their homework, oftentimes outside because they do not have electricity in their homes and the sun sets at 7:30.

Throughout their young lives, these girls have experienced horrific events, including those that forced their families to flee their home countries and seek protection elsewhere. Even beyond those initial events, they are still faced with incredible challenges that seem to only make them stronger. Time and again these girls have experienced upheaval and chaos in their lives.

And while their lives are difficult beyond our imagination, the girls know clearly that education is their beacon of hope. They are not just brilliant, but they are resolved and resilient. These are the girls that, if given the opportunity, could truly change the world.

-Paul & Matt

Monday, January 16, 2012

After a 6-hour drive from the capital, Gaborone, Paul and I arrived at the Dukwi Refugee Camp. Before proceeding with details of our day, I’d like to share with you all just a brief profile of the camp. The Dukwi Refugee Camp currently serves somewhere around 3,500 individuals, including nearly 2,000 children. As of today, the refugee population represents 12 countries throughout Africa, and some of these individuals and/or families have been living within the camp for over 15 years.

Immediately upon arrival at the camp, Paul and I met with the UNHCR staff, including Country Representative Ms. Lynn Ngugi, to discuss the overall goals for our visit and to go over the itinerary for the week’s meetings and interviews. Next we met with the camp’s Settlement Commandant, along with his deputy, from the Ministry of Justice, Defense, and Security, the governmental bureau that oversees refugee services within the country. These gentlemen represent the Botswana government within the camp, overseeing the refugees’ security, settlement locations, and evaluating their requests to leave the camp. As with Mr. Sanoto, the Director of the Ministry whom we met last week, they were very supportive of the program and enthusiastic about the prospect of introducing additional scholarships and enrichment programs into the camp.

In the early evening, we received a tour of the camp, which is nearly 8 square miles and divided into nine zones. As a general rule of thumb, each zone contains a different nationality, but with nine zones and around a dozen countries represented, there is always overlap. As Paul and I were taken from zone to zone, we were struck by the vast disparity between homes and the allotted land per home. In some zones, the homes are constructed with mud and sticks and lack physical windows and/or doors, while other homes were built by UN Habitat and include windows, doors, and cinderblock walls. Almost all homes had sheet metal roofs anchored down with rocks, scrap metal or cinderblocks. There are also a number of sections of the camp where refugees are living in UNHCR issued tents. When tents are issued, their intended use is for just six months, but we were told that many of the families have lived in them for much longer periods of time and the fabric has clearly begun to break down and leak. Additionally, some of the homes are surrounded by dirt yards, while others have gardens, and even lush areas of banana and mango trees, planted years ago by long-term residents. In one zone we saw large fields of maize, peanuts, squash, and other produce growing across from homes in unpopulated parts of the camp.

There are a number of reasons for the variance in housing and property accommodations. For instance, the timing of a refugee’s entrance into the camp can determine how much space they are given. Right now if an individual or family enters the camp, they will receive a smaller plot than someone who entered the camp 10 years ago. As another example, if a family enters the camp at the same time as a single man, the family will be more likely to receive a housing structure while the individual man will receive a temporary tent. When a family or individual receives a tent, they are encouraged to build a semi-permanent home and are offered a few basic implements (shovel, wheelbarrow) to do so, but the actual materials are hard to come by. We had the opportunity to talk with one family about where they obtained their housing materials and they told us that they had to make weeklong trips into the bush to collect enough thatch for their roof. In addition to collecting the sticks, thatch and other building materials, they had to make multiple 10K round-trips to get these materials back to their plot of land. In order to get the mud to fill in the spaces of their woven framed structures, they had to dig within their own area and then haul water from the communal tap located at a central point within their zone. Needless to say, building such a home is quite laborious and not everyone would have the skills or ability required. Tents are the only alternative.

As we went around the camp, the social environment also struck us, as we witnessed many people out and about – walking alone and in groups down the red dirt roads, congregating outside refugee-run stores, riding their bicycles, as well as children playing soccer and other games and even dancing together as children do. Just about every person we passed would look at us questioningly and then smile and wave. There are also a number of animals roaming around the camp, including chickens, dogs, cows, and donkeys. We also noticed that each home had a neatly constructed stick or brush fence around their yard, presumably to keep their animals and children within the yard and to keep roaming animals and people out.

After the tour, Paul and I bedded down for the night in the Skill Share guesthouse. We are so thankful to them for their support and generosity!

-Paul & Matt

January 15, 2012

Greetings from Gaborone, Botswana!

After a 15-hour flight from Atlanta, Paul and I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa on Tuesday, January 10th. We rested at a wonderful bed & breakfast just outside the city in a town called Melville. On Wednesday, we drove 5 hours to Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone, where we met up with the UNHCR Country Director, Ms. Lynn Ngugi. During our stay in Gaborone, Ms. Ngugi has graciously opened her home to us while we continue our mission here in Botswana.

Ms. Lynn Ngugi, UNHCR Country Representative, Botswana

Our first meeting was on Thursday, when we met with Ms. Tiny Healy, the director of Skillshare International – Botswana, the NGO providing educational support and services in the Dukwi Refugee Camp, located approximately 6 hours north of Gaborone. Ms. Ngugi, other UNHCR staff, Ms. Healy, and Paul and I discussed the Vulnerable Scholars Program and how Skills Share Botswana could be a leading partner in the Dukwi camp. When we visit the camp this week, we will meet with Ms. Healy and her staff to further discuss this partnership.

On Friday morning, Paul and I met with an official from SOS Children’s Villages, Botswana, a non-governmental organization providing family services and educational support to orphans and vulnerable children throughout the country, and in 132 other countries, as well. Along with UNHCR staff, we discussed with the SOS representative the possibility of partnering with their organization and how best to implement educational enrichment programs for potential scholarship candidates. After our discussion, we received a guided-tour through the local SOS village, meeting with members of the community and the very dedicated principal of the village kindergarten.

Later that afternoon, we met with Mr. Ross Sanoto, Director of the Ministry of Justice, Defense, and Security, the governmental bureau that oversees refugee services within the country. Mr. Sanoto provided us with an overview of the Ministry and his personal experience with the refugee community as he had previously lived within the Dukwi camp as the government’s top representative. The director was very supportive of the Vulnerable Scholars Program mission and invited us to meet with him and other staff members from the Ministry upon our return from Dukwi.

Very early Monday morning, Paul and I will be taken to the Dukwi camp where we will meet throughout the week with students and parents, as well as school personnel, community leaders, government officials within the camp, staff from Skills Share and the Red Cross, and other potential partners. It is our hope to take photos and video footage of our visit, including interviews from our meetings, to use in advocating for scholarships for the girls. Should photos be permitted within the camp, we will do our best to post them here on this blog.

Thank you for continuing to follow our trip and please check back later this week for more updates!


-Paul & Matt
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