Refugee Scholarships Bring Privileges and Frustration
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
Refugees who obtain university degrees consider the meager employment opportunities in Kakuma, asking what next?
Refugees who have benefited from the scholarship program in Kakuma camp have attained impressive educational credentials, but say that their knowledge is essentially useless in the refugee camp context.
Humanitarian agencies provide selected opportunities for higher learning in Kakuma Camp to qualified applicants. Windle Trust Kenya (WTK) and Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) provide limited scholarship opportunities to refugee students who meet the criteria. External donors may visit Kakuma and assist scholar through these NGOs. For instance, the Italian donor organization of Caritas channels scholarships through JRS.
JRS primarily focuses on providing distance learning based in Kakuma through the University of South Africa, but also facilitates direct studies in Nairobi. UNISA’s distance learning program provides an opportunity for first-degree courses such as public or developmental administration, economics, sociology, psychology, education, business management, or community health.
Windle Trust Kenya offers scholarship support for first-degree programs in Nairobi, second-degree programs in Nairobi and the UK, and also coordinates the WUSC Program, a first-degree program to a Candadian University via educational resettlement.
According to students familiar with the scholarship programs, the objectives of the scholarship programs are 1) to satisfy the intellectual quest of individuals; 2) to empower the refugee community; 3) to allow individual refugees to be self-reliant and 4) to develop skills so that refugees can contribute to the development of their countries when returning back home.
KANERE met with three graduates of higher education scholarship opportunities in Kakuma and they shared their stories of privilege and frustration.
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Beley was interviewed at the UNISA (University of South Africa) compound where he is involved in physical fitness exercises. He completed his scholarship studies a year ago, but the UNISA compound is his “second home” where he reads and does physical exercise. In his own estimation, “I am a part of this compound.”
Beley says his application was accepted and he began scholarship learning in 2002 in Business Management and Economics. The scholarship was paid for by JRS and Karitas, an Italian NGO. Before he began education, he had run a small business, which he stopped in order to concentrate on studies. He continued working in the IRC Adult Education Program as a business skills teacher in afternoons, and also advised local business people.
After graduating from the UNISA distance program, he continued teaching business skills for a monthly incentive payment of 3000 Ksh. He says the career opportunities are very limited: “There is no job market [in Kakuma]. As a policy, refugees cannot be employed as salaried workers. Thus my mind is changed, but there is no change in my living standards.”
“My privilege is that my educational level has changed and upgraded. The way for further education is open, and many of my skills are employed, for example in communication skills. But my frustration is that I have no material gains, life is not changed, and is morally down.”
Beley says that in order to chart a way forward, humanitarian agencies must take action to re-structure the deadening atmosphere of the refugee camp. “If the UNHCR people listen to this; I believe a policy review is very important.”
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Addis is married and a father of two children. In 1991, he was a student at Addis Abbaba University College of Social Scienes. In the same year, he was forced to flee his country. From 1991 to 1993 he stayed in Walda Refugee Camp, Kenya, until the camp was closed and the refugees were moved to Kakuma Camp.
In 1999, Addis was registered as a student in UNISA with the first group of students to be enrolled in the then-new program. From 2000 to 2003, he joined Daystar University as a student sponsored by WTK, where he completed his BA in Community Development.
From 2004 to 2006, Addis studied at the University of Nairobi on a sponsorship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), where he completed a Masters in Sociology of Disaster Management.
After completing this postgraduate studies, Addis says it was “back to Kakuma.” He says he has used his educational skills only indirectly, through a series of incentive jobs with Kakuma-based NGOS. He joined WTK where he tutored UNISA undergraduate students in management. For a time in 2007 and 2009, he worked with FilmAid International as an outreach counterpart manager. Currently, he serves as an English language instructor with WTK.
Through his knowledge Addis has tried to contribute to community development, but he feels these efforts have been limited in the camp. “Although directly or indirectly, I have tried to contribute to the refugee population. But I also feel that if conditions were appropriate, I would have contributed much more than this.”
He says that scholars in Kakuma face particular challenges upon completion of studies. The employment market is dismal, if not non-existent. In order to be employed, he points out, one needs a work permit. But refugee status in Kenya prohibits one from obtaining a proper work permit, and getting proper documentation for working abroad (the Convention Travel Document) is a “hectic process.”
The few employment opportunities within Kakuma are hardly relevant for those with higher education. “Within Kakuma refugee camp, we are given low-level positions regardless of our qualifications, which are meant to be a level of reading and writing English. For instance, these jobs can typically be filled by form-four leavers (or secondary school graduates).”
“With all these trainings and qualifications in which our sponsors invested millions of shillings, our future still looks gloomy and we are counting our days in Kakuma refugee camp,” says Addis.
In looking to the way forward, Addis believes that “our sponsors should have liaison offices which help refugee scholarship holders get jobs after completing their studies.” He adds, “UNHCR should be gracious and sympathize with refugee scholars in order to consider them for resettlement. At the same time, they should facilitate scholars by getting Convention Travel Documents.”
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Luis is a Rwandan refugee who is married with three children. He began studying sociology and criminal justice in 2001 with a scholarship from JRS. During his studies, he worked as a child development caseworker with LWF. Upon completing his studies in 2006, he resigned from the post but continued volunteering as a Child Advisory Committee member. Today, he and his family survive on the profits of his small business.
“I am very happy to complete studies,” he says. “I will never forget JRS in my life; I consider that organization as my parent.”
While the Sudanese refugees were still a significant population in Kakuma, Luis sold construction materials like poles, plastic sheets, and makuti (grass matting used for roofing). When the Sudanese began repatriating, he started bringing plastic sheets for roofing and supplies for retailers. He obtains his materials from Nairobi through brokers. Reflecting on his business experience, he says, “This business has a lot of frustration due to lack of free movement.”
He says that he never applied the knowledge he gained from his studies due to lack of relevant jobs in Kakuma and the Kenyan policy prohibiting refugees from gainful employment.
“In my opinion, the Kenyan government and UNHCR policies should be reviewed to facilitate the potential refugees to get Convention Travel Documents to move freely from place to place for jobs. For example in Southern Sudan, skilled manpower is badly needed, but due to lack of travel documents, it is impossible to get there. I would wish to continue studying instead of wasting my time on a business which is irrelevant to my studies. If you do not get a job that is relevant to your studies and does not pay you to survive well, it becomes difficult and frustrating.”