Monday, February 15, 2010

Kenya: Studying their out of world’s largest refugee camp

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

It's said that books allow you to escape to another world – and that's exactly what four young refugees in Dadaab have done by securing scholarships to some of the most prestigious secondary schools in Kenya.

Self-confessed 'bookworms' Mohamed Abdi Samatar and Amino Mohamed Mohamud were always vying with each other for the top spot in their Standard 8 class in the UNHCR-funded Amani Primary School, Hagadera Camp. And when they received their KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) results last December, they thought they were destined for four more years' learning in Hagadera Secondary School – one of the two secondary schools in their camp and one of just six in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee complex.

Amino (17) was so certain that she had done enough to secure a place in Hagadera Secondary School that she rushed home after her final exam in November and told her father to buy her new school uniform immediately. But her father quoted an old African proverb – 'hurry, hurry has no blessing' – to her and told her to bide her time.

His reluctance has proven well-founded as, due to her high score, Amino has received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Kenya High School in Nairobi, beginning her studies this month. There will be at least one familiar face there as last year another Hagadera student, Fatuma Omar, also won a scholarship to Kenya High. Amino is following in Fatuma's footsteps but she wants other to follow in hers, too.

When they received the news of their scholarships, Amino and Mohamed (14) went back to Amani school to talk to the current Standard 8 students. "We told them, urged them, to follow in our footsteps," Amino said. "One girl promised to me that she would get an even higher score than I did. I felt jealous but also happy for her because, if she does, she too will have a chance of a scholarship."

Amino came to Dadaab with her family after they fled the port city of Kismayo in Somalia in 2000 but Mohamed, the eldest of seven children and who will be going to Nairobi High School, was born in Dadaab and knows nothing other than the red, sandy soil of Hagadera camp in Kenya's North Eastern Province.

"My family always used to tell me to do hard work, perform better and be a good example to my sisters and brothers. I hope the younger ones will follow in my footsteps, I want to be a good role model for them" he says, proudly. "My family is sad that I will be leaving them to go to school but their happiness for me that I have received a scholarship is greater than their sadness. And anyway, I will be able to come home during holidays to see them."

Amino shares Mohamed's bittersweet happiness. "In one way we are happy for us to be chosen and to be the ones that are being taken but we are also a little sad to be leaving our young brothers and sisters and friends behind," she said. Their headmaster arranged for pictures of their former classmates to be taken so that they have a "memory picture", as they put it, to take with them to their new schools. The headmaster has also ensured that a picture of his two star pupils will be prominently on display in Amani school to serve as encouragement and inspiration to the current crop of learners.

Abdullahi Mohamed Yussuf (17), a student from Hagadera' Central Primary School, is also destined for Nairobi after he too scored high marks in his KCPE exams. Abdullahi, an Ogaden who came to Dadaab in 2002, is bound for Alliance High School, where he is looking forward to studying maths and the science subjects of biology, chemistry and physics as he wants to be an engineer. So does Mohamed, who likes "measuring things, mathematics and calculations". Amino harbours ambitions to be a lecturer, either of science or social studies – her favourite subject.

Hassan Muktar Abdi (16) is the first student in the history of Ifo camp to receive a secondary scholarship and left Dadaab for the first time in his life for Nakuru High School. Previously the furthest he travelled was to nearby Dagahaley camp to buy his school uniform and some textbooks. "Refugees can do as well as any others if they work hard and at their own pace," says Hassan who wants to become a doctor or work for a UN agency so that he can "help the world". "I believe I can do better in the years to come."

None of the students appear in the least bit apprehensive about the new and exciting chapter in their lives that now lies ahead. "We will adapt and be a friend to people even if we haven't met them yet," Abdullahi says confidently. Clearly, if you can adapt to life in Dadaab, you can adapt anywhere.

by Andy Needham in Dadaab, Kenya

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