The campus in the camp: Restoring hope for refugee students

It is a busy Friday inside Kiziba Camp in Rwanda as refugees are attending different activities. Francine Izabayo sits inside one of the classrooms revising courses. She is a refugee student and attends all her classes inside the camp. It is a campus within the camp known as Kepler Kiziba.

Izabayo knows no other life other than that in Kiziba, about 15km outside Karongi town in the Western province of Rwanda. The 22-year-old young woman was born and raised there after her family and thousands of other Congolese people were forced to flee their country due to war and armed conflict. Her family settled in Kiziba Camp in 1996 and has been there since. As Izabayo grew up, there were no dreams to access basic education let alone a university education.

Luckily, the Rwandan government, in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), set up a primary school within the camp to help refugee children access primary education. Izabayo joined the primary school and performed well. Little did she think that she would make it to secondary school.

However, when she completed primary school, she had a chance to enrol in secondary school with support from UNHCR and she completed that as well. Once again, Izabayo thought it was the end of her education journey – until Kepler announced it was opening a campus within the camp.

Kepler, a non-profit higher education programme, partners with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to provide students in East Africa with access to United States-accredited bachelor degrees from SNHU.

Graduates get US-accredited degrees

In partnership with the UNHCR, the IKEA Foundation and Rwanda’s ministry for disaster management and refugees, Kepler set up the campus within Kiziba Camp in 2015. It consists of classrooms and other facilities where students take part in extracurricular activities. It is the first campus of its kind found inside a refugee camp. Kepler students on Kiziba campus are mostly refugees, but a few come from host communities.

The Kiziba programme offers learners the opportunity to earn a US-accredited degree from SNHU, which in turn equips them to explore expanded employment opportunities. To date, the Kepler Kiziba Campus has provided higher education for over 170 learners, about 66 of whom have received a bachelor degree from SNHU.

According to the UNHCR, 6% of refugees globally have access to higher education today compared to only 1% in 2019.

Izabayo said: “I was so excited to hear about the news that Kepler was opening a campus in the camp. It was unbelievable, and I decided to do all I could to enrol first. Actually, I had never thought about joining the university in my life due to my refugee status. I was born and grew up in the camp; little did I hope that I would live a different life outside of the camp,” she told University World News, sitting in the classroom on campus.

Izabayo said that, when it was time to apply for a scholarship, she began preparing. “I had attended the Iteme programme that helps refugee and other vulnerable students to prepare for university education. I applied and was called for Kepler entry exams which I passed easily,” she said.

Initiated by Kepler, the Iteme programme literally means ‘bridge’ aimed at connecting secondary school graduates – mainly refugees and those from vulnerable families – with scholarships and preparing them for higher education.

Soft skills included in programmes

“When I received the news that I had passed the entry exams, I felt so excited and I enrolled along with a few other students. We were all happy that we were going to get an education without leaving our families,” Izabayo said. “I also thought attending university could change my life and that of my family.”

She is currently in her final year, studying arts in communication with a focus on business.

Izabayo is positive about life after she graduates. “Besides acquiring a normal [academic] education, I also acquired soft skills such as time management, teamwork, communication and collaboration, which I think will help me throughout my career when I leave university,” she said.

Izabayo believes that, by the time she graduates, she will have acquired all the skills needed to create her own business. “My dream is to be self-employed; I want to create a business around the camp and ensure that I support the community within and around the camp.

“I understand what the refugee population needs well, and I will work to deliver on that. I also think that my family and the refugee community, in general, expect a lot from us [the graduates],” she added.

“I am also grateful that we managed to study on campus. As refugee students, it could have been hard for us to afford education outside the campus as it involves extra expenses; everything is good here as we study while living with our families.”

Kepler inspires students

Claude Kalisa, 21, is also a student pursuing a BA degree in management with a focus on logistics. “I am very grateful that I am now a university student and can access education with no difficulties. With a refugee status, I never hoped this could be possible,” he said. Kalisa lives with family and has seven siblings.

“I joined Kepler because I wanted to increase my skills and get an international degree so that I can compete internationally. My dream is to be a manager of a big company or create my own business. I think I will do so because I will have what it takes,” he said.

Jean Bosco Dukuzumuremyi, also from the refugee camp, joined Kepler during the maiden intake. When he graduated, he was hired by the institution and currently works as Kepler Kiziba campus operations officer.

“I know the struggle of students and I do it with a whole heart; I work into the night because I know that I am supporting my peers,” he said.

Refugees still lagging far behind

Despite the increase in access to education for refugees, the UNHCR says the number is far below the global average higher education enrolment among non-refugees, which stands at more than 40%.

The UNHCR and its partners have committed to the 15 by30 target that aims to ensure that 15% of young refugee women and men, or approximately 500,000 refugees in total, can access higher education by 2030.

“Higher education is a critical link between learning and earning, allowing young people to thrive and transition to the pursuit of sustainable futures,” according to the UNHCR. “Investments in higher education for refugees strengthen the national education systems in which they participate, to the benefit of host communities, students, and institutions.”