Going to School in a Refugee Camp
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Every parent wishes to see their children going to school and getting a quality education. But hundreds of miles away from their home country and living in a foreign country as a refugee, would that be possible?
When the tragedy of the civil war in Somalia struck in 1991, the civilians fled to neighboring countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen. Kenya was the recipient of the largest number. Avalanches of people docked at the borders of Kenya seeking refuge.
My family was among the first adventurers of a barren land in North Eastern Kenya that provided an ecosystem to what would be the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab. UNHCR, in conjunction with the government of Kenya, provided a safe haven for the Somali refugees fleeing the escalating violence back at home and set up makeshift camps to settle the new arrivals.
“Education Transforms Society” reads the motto of Windle Trust International, one of UNHCR’s education implementing partners in Dadaab camps. My parents, just like others in the camp believed that the education of my siblings and I would be one of the best returns on investment, even though they did not have a formal education.
My passion for education began at a young age, probably just before I was six years old. It was not because I knew the value of education but I was fond of the school environment. Before I was a pupil, I had a curiosity and an interest for school while attending their feeding programs sponsored by UNICEF. Most of the days I would follow my cousins to school, grab a cup, sneak into the line and wait my turn to be served the milk. I just longed to one day intermingle with my peers and join the fun and entertaining life in school.
When I was six years old, my parents realized it was the right time to go to school. My siblings and I were among a dozen of other children, most of them my relatives and neighbors. We were taken to school by my maternal uncle, who also happened to be a grade six pupil. The school was so much fun – playing football to kite running with my peers inside the school field. We longed for the Physical Education Program (PEP) period and when the bell would ring, I would rush to the field and set the stage for the hide and seek game, my favorite physical activity. I also enjoyed playing with toys. I used to make animals out of soaked clay. This not only helped me pass time but it also helped me to be creative and understand the lessons practically.
Those days, it felt like the refugee education system in Dadaab was of quality. We were taught by trained and experienced teachers from other parts of Kenya, who spoke English and Kiswahili – Kenya’s two formal languages for communication. This was important because it helped us practice these two languages for understanding the lessons and communicating with other Kenyans.
The school uniforms were offered for free. Textbooks, exercise books, pens and other learning materials were not a burden for parents and guardians. Bright pupils who shone in the exams used to go home with bags of rewards. We were also given non-food items like utensils. I felt the school children in our camp had a bigger advantage than our counterparts who were not in school.
During the holidays, we used to have extra-coaching classes that helped us digest the scope of the syllabus of the previous school term and prepare for the upcoming one. In the weekends, there used to be remedial classes to ensure slow-learners also had a space to grasp the lessons and keep moving with the other pupils. Exams were held quarterly, assignments and homework were given after every class. During the academic day, there were lots of rewards in place for various categories; from academic performance to good conduct to punctuality and so on.
Inter-school competitions were often held in the camp; both curricula and co-curricular contests. Sometimes the contests were between the schools within the camp, other times it was between the schools in the three different camps. Common competitions held among schools were in debate, drama and music festivals, science, mathematics, literature and sports like soccer, volleyball and tennis. These helped us to bond, and bring unity towards one another since the camp was a cosmopolitan of different religions, races and cultures.
During my entire primary school years, I never felt I was missing anything basic to education. The firm foundation I got in primary education helped me easily pass through high school experience. Now at tertiary level, pursuing a degree in Political Science at the University of Nairobi, I treasure my success so far to my exceptional parents and all those who gave me a helping hand in one way or another to see me through primary education.
Every child has the right to receive not only education but also a quality education – whether a refugee or not. When most of the people hear about refugees, an image of hunger and a life of destitute swiftly come to their mind. But with the support of selfless well-wishers, refugee life can be a life-changing experience.