In Kenya’s sprawling Kakuma Refugee Camp, there’s no telling when the internet connection will work: Sometimes it will flicker or fail for three weeks straight. But ever since the opportunity to study came into his life, Yunis, a refugee from Somalia, comes to the center as often as possible, hoping to learn.
“His dream is to become an expert in computer science and networking,” said Kitala Mupenge Fabrice, co-founder of the Solidarity Initiative for Refugees (SIR), which runs a center that provides online access to higher education for 47 students. “He has a little skill now and he is surely assisting the community in Kakuma.”
For the founders of SIR, the dream is to offer this kind of online education to more of their neighbors in the camp—and to find programs that will provide certificates or diplomas that testify to the students’ achievements. Currently, they say, the online higher education options for refugees in Kenya are too limited.
In a camp largely run by humanitarian and government bodies, SIR is part of an ecosystem powered by refugees themselves. The materials for the center came from researchers who live abroad: 13 second-hand computers, one modem, four batteries, six solar panels, a lockbox, and iron sheets for walls. But the vision came from Fabrice and three other refugees, who recruited students and have run the center for the past year.
It all started with a Google search. Fabrice, a social worker by training, found an online higher education program on social work. He told his friend Ebengo Honore Alfani, also a social worker, who was then admitted to an online program to study political science. Months later, they had the idea to help even more refugees access these online learning opportunities.
The first obstacle was the advertisement.
“The question was: How will we make it while we don’t have paper or a laptop for typing?” said Honore.
Fabrice offered to donate 500 Kenyan shillings ($5 USD) to buy a ream of paper. Honore promised to find a laptop for typing.
“We wrote an announcement, which was saying that everyone who is interested to pursue his higher education, let us meet at Fuji Primary School on Sunday at 2 p.m.,” said Fabrice. “That Sunday, we got 253 potential applicants.”
Together with two other refugees, they formed SIR, bringing under the same umbrella several different refugee-run initiatives. They created a constitution. They created operational rules. And with donations from foreigners, they set up a small learning center in Kakuma 3, one of the four parts of the camp.
There are about 150,000 people living in Kakuma, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It is not any easy life, by any measure of the word.
Every morning, Fabrice lines up to receive his 10 liters of water for the day. If the water source breaks down, there are few options.
“What we normally do is to travel between two and three kilometers outside camp to look for water,” said Fabrice, whose dream is to study international law, and eventually become the President of his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For Fabrice, the construction of SIR’s center was one of the best days in recent memory. Since their arrival in Kakuma, all of the group’s founders have been working for the benefit of other refugees, whether as protection monitors for international and national organizations, or as translators and fixers for researchers, like the team from the International Human Rights Clinic, which visited earlier this year to examine documentation challenges in the camp.
But the creation of their own learning center was something different.
“I always feel happy, very happy every day when I get in the center and see how my sisters and brothers refugees are focusing on their studies,” said Honore.
There will always be obstacles. His worst days come at the end of the month, when SIR asks the students for their monthly fee of 250 Kenyan shillings. The center can’t maintain its equipment without this money; SIR is still struggling to raise the 24,000 Kenyan shillings (or $238) it will take to replace a battery that exploded.
Still, most of SIR’s students are jobless. For them, the contribution is too much to make.
This was the case with Manahil, a refugee from Sudan, and a promising political science student who planned to help others with her education. She wanted to do great things, she told Honore. But the fee was too much to bear.
She asked for his advice.
“Please work seriously on the obstacles that you see in front of you,” he told her. “Face them.”
When Manahil wanted to know Honore’s secret, he told her: “I am always in positive minds.”
One day, with more education, Honore would like to be a professor of political science, lecturing at universities around the world. For now, he is developing leadership skills as he supports his neighbors from so many different countries and communities, from Somali Bantu to South Sudan’s Nuer tribe.
He may be living in the 39 blocks of Kakuma 3. But to Honore, it feels like a replica of his continent, with all its richness and range.
“That is my happiness,” Honore said, of supporting his neighbors. “For that, I can say I am Ambassador of Human Development in Africa.”
NOTE: A team from the International Human Rights Clinic met Honore and visited SIR’s center while researching documentation challenges for refugees in the camp. This article is based on later email exchanges with Honore and Fabrice. To learn more about SIR, email: [email protected]