HE brings hope in world’s biggest refugee camp

For many refugees, talk of going to university is a distant or impossible dream. In the world’s largest refugee camp complex, at Dadaab in eastern Kenya, established in 1991, less than 2% of the university age population has access to higher education.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

For years a lack of trained teachers fuelled the hopelessness of the situation, keeping many children out of school in Dadaab’s camps.

Now a drastic government decision to disband the camp of 340,000 or more refugees and repatriate the vast majority back to Somalia, a country where security problems are rife, has presented an additional challenge.

It is a bittersweet moment for an innovative project run by BHER – Borderless Higher Education for Refugees – which has been pioneering ways to address the chronic education deficit in the camps of Dadaab.

This July it will see its first cohort of students achieve teaching diplomas and in September a first cohort of students will join degree programmes at two Kenyan universities and one Canadian university, but studying from the confines of their camp.

Now it is wrestling with the question of how to help students progress through a three-stage pathway, from a teaching certificate programme, to a teaching diploma and ultimately a recognised degree programme even if they are forced to relocate to another, far less secure country.

“It’s a worrying time,” says BHER Project Manager Aida Orgocka. “The situation described by field staff is that nobody knows what is going to happen. Government officials first said the camp would close in six months, now there is another directive saying they are thinking of November 2017, but whether they will change their minds again, we just don’t know.”

Harsh environment

This is one of the most difficult environments in which to try to provide higher education – which is also why it is so badly needed – due to poor quality school education, the pressures of poverty, security problems and uncertainty over the camp complex’s future.

Dadaab is made up of five camps – Dagahaley, Ifo, Ifo2, Hagadera and Kambioos – on semi-arid land 60 miles from the Somali border and where life is a struggle for refugees and local inhabitants.

It has been described as a ‘city of thorns’, and an ‘open prison in the desert’, where those seeking sanctuary have little possibility of leaving or being allowed to work.

The refugees have fled mostly from conflict and violence, but also from drought and famine, bringing with them little more than the clothes on their back.

Relatively newly arrived refugees live in tents or simple shelters made of branches with plastic sheeting overhead. Others tend to live in semi permanent structures made of mud and twigs or mudbricks with iron sheeting or polythene for a roof.

For years most families survived on rations given by agencies – portions of cooking oil, flour, some maize or sorghum grain and maybe some mung beans from the World Food Programme – but now they get food vouchers to buy supplies in the numerous makeshift grocery shops in the camps instead. Other agencies give them jerry cans for water, mosquito nets and solar lamps to read by.

Some have their own businesses in the camp and some earn 'incentive' wages from the UN and other aid agencies working in the camp, Ks5,000 ($50) a month for a cleaner and Ks8,000 ($80) for a primary level teacher for instance, and up to Ks11,500 ($115) for a secondary level teacher.

There are few alternatives to improve their lives because opportunities to work outside the camps are highly restricted by work permit requirements. “Even if you do get a permit, you can’t take a job if a Kenyan candidate can do the same job and there are many Kenyans without jobs, so it is rare that you get into formal employment,” says Philemon Misoy, BHER project liaison in Dadaab.

In other places education would offer hope, but when BHER started working here, 70% of primary school teachers were untrained and most teachers had come straight out of secondary school. Parents could see there were not enough teachers to ensure good quality education and many kept their children out of school to do manual jobs, Misoy says.

Funded by Global Affairs Canada, BHER’s key focus has been on improving the quality of teaching in the camps and host community, thereby raising the educational attainment of primary and secondary students.

It achieves this by providing inclusive and gender sensitive teacher education programmes – although keeping young women in the academic programmes is particularly difficult because of girls' poor performance and low secondary graduation rates and pressures to work instead on household duties, due to traditional gender norms in the Dadaab communities.

Informed by a 2012 Feasibility Study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and The MasterCard Foundation, the BHER model combines blended teaching and learning that delivers university-level certificate, diploma and degree courses to refugee and local teachers and those interested in teaching.

Student teachers are trained while on the job, starting with non-credit courses preparing students for university education; followed by an international accredited two-year diploma in teacher education either in primary or secondary education; and then the opportunity to go on and take a bachelor degree in community health education, education in science/arts, or geography.

The hub of the operations is a BHER Learning Centre in Dadaab, close to the camps, which supported up to 300 students and 44 instructors this academic year (2015-16). By bringing students together in one centre, BHER creates a learning community in one place, where students can benefit from visiting teachers, but also from talking to each other, as well as online instruction.

Because the camps are spread out, some students have to be transported up to 12 miles to attend the centre. They also have to fit their studying into the school holidays and evenings because many of them are teaching.

Mohamed Jama, 32, a refugee from Mogadishu, the Somali capital, says the conditions are tough.

He teaches from 7am to 5.30pm in Hagadera Horal Secondary School five days a week and works with youth groups and youth education partners every Saturday. He is studying for an education diploma under a partnership between the University of British Columbia and Moi University.

But at the university centre in the camp it is hard to find time to type up his handwritten notes, and students share one textbook between three of them; and at home he has to revise by torchlight because there is no electricity.

The university and NGO partnerships are key to the BHER project. The BHER Consortium currently includes four universities, two of them from Canada (York University and the University of British Columbia) and two from Kenya (Moi University and Kenyatta University); and one NGO, Windle Trust Kenya.

The next phase of the project will begin in September when the first cohort of students embarks on bachelor degrees in four areas – geography at York, Toronto; community health education at Moi, and education (arts) or education (sciences) at Kenyatta.

According to Aida Orgocka, BHER project manager, a key value that BHER offers is the credibility of internationally recognised university programmes at the level of certificates, diplomas, degrees in education and social science.

Students in Dadaab take the same courses as peers in their Canadian or Kenyan universities that are members of the BHER consortium. Assessment is carried out by the relevant university, with instructors teaching and grading just as they would at the institution itself.


BHER’s main mission is to bring university education to where refugees need it. According to Orgocka, the mission was informed by rigorous research that suggested that provision of scholarships contributed to brain drain and was reaching out only to few students, less than 1% in general, not just in Kenya.

By definition BHER is working in the camps with students who are not the cream, who have not been snatched up for scholarships, and who have perhaps not had the best results at school for a variety of reasons.

By training those students as they teach in the camps, and providing them with the opportunity to go on and take a degree, BHER is attempting to improve three levels of education in the camps with all the consequent benefits for development that will bring. BHER concedes that it just does not have the resources to track the change in the schools as a result of its work and relies on reports from the students themselves, as well as staff.

Misoy told University World News that since the inception of the BHER project there has been an increase in the number of students enrolling in primary and secondary schools in Dadaab.

“We are training the teachers and even part-trained teachers are able to improve the classroom experiences,” says Misoy. “The performance in national exams has gone up, as has the number of students qualifying for higher education.”

The knock-on effect is that “the presence of teachers attracts more children to school because parents see there are enough teachers; otherwise they take them out and maybe set them doing manual jobs,” he says.

Before BHER began its work, the 23 primary schools in the camps had on average two or three teachers each who were trained or being trained, but this has now risen to 10, and from August a portion of those will have Kenyatta University teaching diplomas, Misoy says.

“In every school you will see BHER graduates teaching now.”

Drastic decision

The resilience of the programme is being tested to the limit, however, by a drastic Kenyan government decision to close down Dadaab by November – possibly now extended to November 2017 – and repatriate some 300,000 Somali refugees, many of whom have lived there either up to 25 years or, in the case of younger refugees, all their lives, to the country from which they sought asylum.

In the announcement in early May, the government said it was necessary to protect the country’s security after a series of attacks by al-Shabaab militants.

A common fear is that the camps may have been infiltrated by al-Shabaab because of the proximity to the border. The camp is also only 60 miles from Garissa University College where gunmen killed 148 people, mostly students, and injured 79 or more in April 2015.

Staff and students in Dadaab town and the camp told University World News that the security situation actually seems to have improved but it is unpredictable.

In two separate incidents in 2011 aid agency workers were kidnapped and taken across the border. Last year a teacher from Hagadera camp was seized but was rescued before the hostage taker reached the border.

A concern is that when Kenyan instructors visit the BHER centre that might place them at risk, but also make students more of a target, so reducing risk and providing a deterrent is considered vital. As a result, BHER has to factor in security arrangements.

Staff can’t go anywhere in the camps without an armed private security escort whether provided by private guards or the police. When the learning centre is open, armed guards patrol the grounds. If the security officer says teaching has to be interrupted at 2pm, it has to stop. “It is a very challenging context,” says Orgocka. “You always have to be one or two steps ahead.”

Misoy says government claims the camp has been infiltrated and is harbouring militants are most likely misplaced.

“The refugees are vulnerable people themselves, they have run away from violence.” Misoy says. “When you speak with students and parents they will tell you they feel this is a much better place than where they were, because Somalia is always in a war mode.”

An alternative view among agencies on the ground is that the government is flexing its muscles over frustration at the failure of the international community to make good on its commitment at the pledging conference in Brussels in October to provide support for repatriation of Somali refugees.

On 13 June*, a day after this article was first published, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that the decision to repatriate all the Somalis in the camp was final. The latest reports suggest the government will maintain a deadline of this November.

Orgocka says: “It’s a worrying time.”

She says BHER is right now exploring ways to work with Somali National University, especially their school of education. Last week the BHER team at York University in Toronto held talks with the dean of the school of education and the rector and vice-rector of Somali National University. The rector said there had been no teacher training in Somalia for the past 25 years.

So now BHER – which has contributed to the revisions of the UN agency for refugees, UNHCR’s national strategy for education in Kenya – is looking beyond Dadaab to see how it can help improve teacher training elsewhere in the region as well as how to help Dadaab students continue their studies in Somalia if they wish.

It is also playing an active role in the creation of an international consortium for connected learning in higher education for refugees which would see similar partnerships of universities and NGOs working together to pool resources and enable transfer of credits from one programme to another, making it easier for refugees who resettle or are forced to move to carry on their journey through higher education.

The consortium might also help mobilise donor resources. “No university can do this for free or on its own,” says Orgocka. “York University within BHER has contributed way more than its share, because it believes in social justice and this is a very important cause. But you need faculty, resources, staff on the ground.”

Increased demand

Misoy says initially there was scepticism in the camp about BHER’s work as people wondered if the project would run for the full cycle. But when in April this year they announced that they were making applications for degree programmes there was a real buzz about the place. He got calls from every part of the camp asking if they could be admitted into BHER’s degree programmes.

“Unfortunately we only have space for those who trained with us,” he says. The problem is that scholarships for refugees are very limited and WUSC – World University Service of Canada – is able to cream off the top performers in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education.

“But for the past three years we have been present and have had two groups getting access to our sponsored opportunities. And it’s now a known route through which people can access tertiary education.”

The problem for the students is that just as the route has been established the threat of camp disbandment could take it away.

Fatuma Ali Zahara, 26, a Kenyan, is one of four teachers at Dadaab primary school being trained via the academic programmes offered by universities affiliated with BHER – two of the teachers are taking teaching diplomas at Kenyatta University and two at Moi University.

She says the project has raised the number of teachers from 12 to 16 at the school, which caters for 800 students, and without them fewer children would be attending.

“Before I was not doing anything, I was just staying at home. This has given me the chance of a job,” she says. A mother of one, with another child on the way, she says it is difficult for women with children to hold down a job, without someone to take care of the children. But her main fear now is that if the camp closes, the BHER Learning Centre will vanish too.

“We are worried because we don’t know if we are going to continue. We wish to see our degree certificate,” she says.

For Mohamed Jama, the stakes are higher. A father of four, he left Mogadishu when he was two and has been living in Dadaab as a refugee for the past 25 years. He lost his parents in the conflict and his foster parents from the camp have since passed away, as has his uncle. “There is nothing for me in Mogadishu,” he says.

He wants to remain in Kenya but hopes, if he has to move, that the University of British Columbia will sponsor him to finish his studies in Canada.

*This article was first published on 12 June and was updated on 14 June.