NGO expands tertiary education to remote refugee camp

An innovative non-governmental organisation is breaking some of the toughest barriers to attaining a university education imaginable – offering refugees living in Kiziba, a remote camp tucked away in far eastern Rwanda, access to degree courses. Higher learning was out of reach for its younger residents, for geographical and financial reasons.

Families fled there from violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, leaving their children unable to return to the country but also unable to enter Rwanda’s formal economy. The apparent fate of these stateless people was to remain in the refugee camp until finally able to return to the war-weary Congo.

Then six months ago Kepler, a non-profit Rwanda-based university programme, opened a branch in Kiziba offering free United States-accredited bachelor degrees in business, communications or healthcare management.

Now 25 students are enrolled in an inaugural class and have embarked on the first part of a three-tiered set of courses, which includes courses to improve English writing and comprehension, master standard computer programmes and learn management skills.

By the time they are finished, the students are expected to have completed an associate’s degree in general studies with a business focus and then a bachelor degree, both through a partnership with the US-based Southern New Hampshire University, whose campuses are in New England.

Camp graduates may end up being better prepared for Rwanda’s job market than many of the country’s university graduates.

UNHCR endorsement

“This is extremely valuable,” said Dr Saber Azam, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, representative in Rwanda. “It’s the first-ever university in a refugee camp in Rwanda. We’re very delighted.”

There are numerous organisations working to extend education to post-secondary levels in refugee camps around the world – such as Jesuit Commons Higher Educations at the Margins, Borderless Higher Education for Refugees and the Australian Catholic University.

Several like Kepler use blended learning that combines online learning with in-person seminars, and allows quality higher education to be delivered in extremely challenging contexts.

One student in Kiziba, Alicia Murekatete, was two years old when she arrived with her family at the Kiziba camp in 1996. They were fleeing clashes near their home in eastern DRC.

The camp, near the shores of Lake Kivu in the far east of Rwanda, has been a haven for refugees like her since it opened that year.

Murekatete, now 21, grew up attending the primary and secondary school in the camp and expecting that her education would end there. “As we are refugees, after finishing secondary school, we didn’t get the chance to continue our studies,” she said, with the cost of university education out of reach. “Kepler came as an answer for me to continue my studies.”

By the time she graduates, she hopes to have a plan to start a business that will provide a service benefiting other refugees in Kiziba.

Thinking big

Kepler started in 2004 as a university scholarship programme benefiting underprivileged young people, especially survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which saw at least 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group and their allies killed by members of the majority Hutu community, incited by an extremist genocidal government.

Then, three years ago, the people running Kepler decided to take on something more ambitious.

“We started to get feedback that traditional universities weren’t offering a very good education,” said Chris Hedrick, Kepler’s chief executive officer. “The professors didn’t always show up, it wasn’t very participatory and there were very few education-to-employment structures.”

The organisation received a grant from the IKEA Foundation to develop a pilot programme designed to offer a new model contrasting with Rwanda’s traditional university education system.

There are currently 256 students enrolled on Kepler’s main Kigali campus, with another 150 set to join in June.

The NGO developed the three-tiered programme, which combines participatory classroom-based seminars with online instruction. And they supplemented it with both on-campus jobs, such as working as a teaching or logistics assistant, and structured internships off campus for students.

A lot of the students get job offers out of the internships, Hedrick said. Within the first cohort of 43 students in Kigali, 36 had full-time jobs before they had even finished their bachelor degree.

Reaching out to refugees

The IKEA Foundation encouraged Kepler to look for potential students among the nearly 150,000 refugees living in Rwanda, the majority of whom escaped conflicts in the DRC and Burundi.

The university received more than 700 applications, but ultimately was only able to admit three students. “It’s not because they weren’t smart, but because a lot of them were out of practice,” he said. “They’d been out of high school for a while.”

That led to another conversation with officials from the foundation and UNHCR last April about how they could integrate refugees into the programme. Ultimately, they hit on the idea of a satellite campus in Kiziba, but with a six-month preparatory period, instead of the standard eight-week session on the Kigali campus.

Officials chose Kiziba among Rwanda’s six refugee camps, Hedrick said, because it “had the largest number of almost-prepared students”.

Within four months an agreement had been signed with Rwanda’s ministry of disaster management and refugee affairs; a curriculum designed; students selected based on earlier school performance and a Kepler-specific test; and classes were ready to start.

While students in Kigali pay US$1,000 for a year’s tuition, a relatively standard fee for Rwanda’s universities, the Kiziba students attend for free. The IKEA Foundation also provided money to buy each student a laptop and Kepler took steps to improve internet access within the camp and guarantee a regular flow of electricity.

The students

Jackson Vugayabagabo, the lead course facilitator, said that in return, the students have shown a commitment to success: “I’ve seen a lot of courage and willingness to try, even if it seems to be hard,” he said. “It’s been really, really significant progress.”

The students attend four hours of class every afternoon in rooms that are used in the mornings for the camp’s primary and secondary students. In fact, several of the 25 students actually work as teachers in the school.

“They’re coming from class teaching in the morning to then spending that amount of time also working hard on the academic side,” Vugayabagabo said. “Some of them, you can tell they’re tired.” But they still often stay well after classes, working on their assignments.

For 20-year-old Kevin Niragire, the programme is already paying dividends. His typing has gone from four words per minute to 56 and the extent of his English vocabulary has soared. “We’re not learning only skills to help outside,” he said. “They’re teaching us to be honest. They help us to work with integrity.”

Once students advance further in the preparatory courses, they will start on the Southern New Hampshire University curriculum, a competency-based programme where they will be required to master a variety of tasks, such as designing a budget, and have their work approved by US-based evaluators.

At the same time, Kepler is working with non-governmental organisations in the camp and businesses in the nearby town of Kibuye to find the students internships.

“My ideal is that we’ll have 100 students graduating over the next years,” Hedrick said, “that they’ll be off to starts of good careers that can either be in Rwanda or, eventually, in other countries, if that’s what they want.”