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Clare Morneau on connecting with students in a Kenyan refugee camp

Clare Morneau’s new book Kakuma Girls tells the stories of girls at Morneau Shepell Secondary School for Girls in the Kakuma refugee camp.

Many young girls have pen pals. But few have pen pals living in a Kenyan refugee camp. Clare Morneau, the daughter of Finance Minister Bill Morneau, has been working to change that. She started a pen-pal program between the girls at her high school, Havergal College in Toronto and the girls at Morneau Shepell Secondary School for Girls in the Kakuma refugee camp. Their handwritten letters were interspersed with group Skype calls, and in February, 2016, Morneau was given the opportunity to visit Kenya and meet several of the very girls she and her classmates had been corresponding with.

Her new book Kakuma Girls tells the stories of these girls from two different continents and entirely different circumstances.

It presents snapshots of who the Kakuma girls are, shows the letters sent across the globe, provides both the Kakuma girls' and Canadian girls' takes on subjects such as home, friendship, education, war and peace, all while providing background on the refugee crisis and the camp these girls live in. Morneau spoke to The Globe and Mail from Toronto.

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Why did you decide to start a partnership between Havergal College students and the Kakuma girls?

I think it's partly because of my family. We've always been community oriented. My sister Grace is from Uganda and I think she's taught me, and I've learned from her, about the power of personal stories and how different facts can be when you actually hear them firsthand from someone who's lived through dangerous situations or trauma. And when I heard about these refugee girls at the Morneau Shepell Secondary School for Girls, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know their stories, their background and why they were so intent on pursuing an education.

What would you say was the biggest thing that the project accomplished?

The realization that education is something that should never be taken for granted because, at least for the girls in Kakuma refugee camp, it isn't. It is their everything.

There's a girl named Rita Monday Tom from South Sudan and she lived in Kakuma without her parents from 2006 to 2013 and then went back to see her family in 2013 and they asked her to stay with them in South Sudan.

She said no because she wanted to get an education and she knew she wouldn't be able to do that. So she went back to Kakuma without her parents just so that she could continue her education.

In the book you write, "It's easy to forget about the need for girls' education in many parts of the world when you're living in a society that accepts and promotes it." What else did you learn about the world from the Kakuma girls and from this entire experience?

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How little it takes to bring people together even when they're from such different backgrounds and have such different stories. It can take a letter, it can take even just a nice drawing that you do for someone or the connection that you make because you both want to be an engineer, or you want to study the same thing if you go on to university.

Little things like that remind me that the world is not that big of a place.

At the end of the book you talk about travelling to Kenya and meeting some of the Kakuma girls in person. What was that like?

It was honestly surreal. Thinking back on it, I can't believe it happened because I have talked to these girls for so long and heard their stories, read their stories, written about their stories. And then to meet them in person was unbelievable. I remember Christine, she's a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she came through the door and I almost started crying. It was like seeing an old friend because I knew so much about her.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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