With his wife in hospital and five children to care for, Okello Mark Oyat was not sure he could finish an assignment for his long-distance geography degree at York University. But Mr. Oyat, a resident of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, persevered and uploaded the paper, omitting only a final edit.
Two years later, his wife is back at home, and Mr. Oyat and 30 other refugees in Dadaab are receiving bachelor’s degrees through York’s Borderless Higher Education program (BHER).
“I am trying very hard to make sure that my children go to school,” Mr. Oyat said in a Skype interview. “They should not suffer the way I did, not live in sequestration the way I did.”
A Ugandan who arrived in one of the world’s oldest refugee camps in his 20s, Mr. Oyat has been in Dadaab for almost three decades. Long-term displacements from one’s home country can lead to acute poverty, depression and hopelessness, research has found. With about 10 per cent of the world’s 65 million refugees − and about four million Palestinians − living in such persistent crises, finding ways to improve their futures is crucial.
Higher education can offer a way out. This year’s graduates say they now want to teach others and are thinking about how to rebuild their home countries, when it is safe to return.
“When we began, we talked about improving the quality of primary and secondary education, so people would not load their families in a boat to take that trip across the Mediterranean,” said Don Dippo, an education professor at York University, and one of the BHER co-ordinators. “Now we see ourselves actively involved in supporting this emerging next generation of leaders.”
Equipped with new skills – including fluent English − the students are also less dependent on foreign aid and can take jobs inside and outside Dadaab.
“My classes are growing,” said Abdikadir Abikar, 30, another program graduate who teaches information and communications technologies to high-schoolers. “In the camp, there are a lot of job opportunities: The students can be employed as a data collector, they can do office work for an NGO as support staff, they can work in a shop typing, scanning, dealing with documents,” he said
Mr. Abikar has lived in Dadaab since he was 11. This fall, he will begin an MA in education through the same program; he is one of seven graduates, including Mr. Oyat, who asked York to let them continue studying. (The university is covering tuition and fees.)
With an MA, they will be able to teach undergraduates in the camp and eventually partially run the entire program – making it self-sustaining. Mr. Abikar is planning to return to Somalia and start up classroom technology initiatives.
About 400 students have enrolled in BHER since it began in 2013. Half have earned degrees or will do so by next spring.
York instructors visit the camp for extended periods to help them with assignments, but the students primarily rely on each other – and their Canadian classmates who are taking the same courses. Using WhatsApp and GoogleDocs, the entire class works on group projects.
“We told [all the students], your success is not based on leaving your classmates behind. In fact, it is the opposite: It is ‘No one left behind,’” Mr. Dippo said. “I think this has helped them to succeed even though there are limits to the supports we can give them.”
For women, being able to study in the camp means they can still be close to their families.
“I studied from 9 to 11 p.m.,” said Fatima Jama, 24, who also hopes Somalia will be safe enough to go home to in a few years. “I used to find time to study at night when I finished my domestic chores.”
While the program is changing the opportunities of some of the world’s most isolated citizens, the situation in the camp is difficult. A quarter-million people live in the various sections of Dadaab, half of what the population was at its peak. But food rations and cash assistance from international agencies are regularly cut to cope with demands from other crises, including Syria, and the Kenyan government has periodically threatened to close the camp.
Still, at a graduation celebration held in Dadaab for this year’s cohort, the mood was optimistic. The students imagined a peaceful Somalia without the regular bombings of civilian and government targets that al-Shabaab militants have inflicted in the past year.
“Our Somalian students said the Mogadishu they will return to is one where Ugandans, and Ethiopians and Eritreans can all go,” Mr. Dippo said. “And even Canadians, they told me − which is a joke because I am identified as a high-value target, so my mobility is limited.
“They said ‘We are going to build a Mogadishu where we can all drink camel’s milk in a café.’”