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York University educates Somalis in refugee camp

Monday October 19, 2015

Students in Dadaab refugee camp exploring Moodle, the learning platform used by York U, in the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Learning Centre computer lab in Dadaab.

For almost her entire life, Muno Abukar Rage has been a refugee. Since she was two years old, Ms. Rage has lived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, a sprawling compound of 50 square kilometres housing about 350,000 people.

Yet Ms. Rage, now 22, also knows that most of her life is still ahead and she is getting herself ready.

“I’d like to be a journalist. Or a teacher, if I get the chance,” Ms. Rage said in a Skype interview from the office of an ambitious York University program that runs at Dadaab. With the unrelenting sun creeping through the blankets hung over the windows of the office, Ms. Rage quietly explained that in all her time at Dadaab, she never gave up on school.

“I did well. I had very good marks,” she said.

Last week, that persistence paid off when Ms. Rage became one of the first graduates of a teacher certification program founded by faculty, students and researchers at York. It is one of the few postsecondary programs in the world to operate inside a refugee camp. (The York program trains instructors for elementary students; a parallel program at the University of British Columbia trains them for high-school teaching.)

“When we were looking for funds to support this project, people said ‘Postsecondary, that seems kind of extravagant. We are talking about people in emergencies,’” said Don Dippo, one of the co-founders of Borderless Higher Education for Refugees. “The case that had to be made is, how long can you consider to think about this as an emergency? You have three generations of people who are living in conditions of supposed temporariness, so there is something a little bit farcical about continuing to call it a temporary situation.”

While the world has been riveted by the plight of refugees escaping Syria, the majority of the world’s asylum seekers are living in what the United Nations calls protracted refugee situations: long-term and intractable exile stretching for more than five years.

“Now that the Syrians are fleeing, people have stopped paying attention to the Somalis. But there are 350,000 people in Dadaab that are sitting there, waiting,” Prof. Dippo said.

Dadaab opened in the early 1990s in response to violence and instability in Somalia. For much of that time, it has been a political tinderbox within Kenya, and between the country and the United Nations. It offers a measure of security to residents, but also limits their future. Only 20 per cent of boys in the camp attend high school; for girls that number is 7 per cent.

One of York’s goals is to increase the number of young women going to school, partly by training more female teachers.

Hibo Haye, a York University student who went to school in Dadaab, has helped. Ms. Haye came here through World University Service of Canada, a program that offers scholarships to Canadian universities for students living in refugee camps around the world.

Her own family is educated and encouraged her to study. That’s rare in Dadaab, she said.

“The girls are doing chores at home; it’s not like the boys that have all the time to be committed to school. I was on Skype, talking to my friends and encouraging them to go,” she said.

Even the meagre stability provided by the camp’s educational programs is now under threat. This spring, the Kenyan government alleged al-Shabab terrorists, operating inside Dadaab, were responsible for killing 147 people at nearby Garissa University. Plans are under way to close the camp within several years and repatriate its residents.

“I will go back, if there is peace,” said Samuel Habineza Kimonyo, another student who graduated from the York program.

Mr. Kimonyo has lived at the camp for 10 years and is already teaching high-school students. He wants to one day teach in regular schools in Somalia.

“Our students are preparing to rebuild Somalia the same way their relatives are preparing who have relocated to Malmo, Sweden, or to Minneapolis, Minnesota,“ Dr. Dippo said. “They live in a tremendous state of hope.”



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