BHER Blogs – Introduction


Innovations to Refugee Education: The Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Project and Transnational Student Networks

Introduction to BHER and the Volunteer Online Community

Dacia Douhaibi

In August, 2013, 149 men and 33 women in the Dadaab refugee camps of northeastern Kenya began a new university preparation program called Increased access and Skills for Tertiary Education (InSTEP). InSTEP, part of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) project, provides intensive training in English, information and communication technology and research methods in order to prepare students for admission into university courses that will, for the first time, take place within the refugee camps themselves. These young students are primarily (though not exclusively) Somali refugees living in this desolate region of Kenya some 100km west of their war-torn nation.  In December, during the second of three one month sessions taking place in August 2013, December 2013 and April 2014, 35 more women joined the program as part of an active initiative to increase gender equity in program enrolment.  In Dadaab, due to common gender inequities associated with poverty (a global gender-based problem) and local social and cultural norms, female students in particular face a disproportionate number of challenges both accessing and completing their education.[i]  As part of its guiding mandate, BHER is working to reach gender parity in tertiary education enrollment by the end of its third year. For the first year, 30% female enrollment was set as a target,[ii] a target that BHER reached; by the December session, 68 out of a total 217 students in InSTEP were women.  BHER is now in its second year of implementation; the first cohort of students began certificate and diploma programs in primary or secondary education on August 4 2014 and a second cohort of students began InSTEP. The remaining challenge is supporting students to ensure that they complete accredited university coursework.

To support this first cohort of students, and in particular the 35 women who joined the program in December one session behind their classmates, BHER established an online forum in late November 2013, connecting women from a collective called the New Scholars Network (part of the Refugee Research Network, a York University based global network of researchers and academics working on refugee and forced migration issues) with female students in InSTEP. Over the last nine months, this forum has served as a virtual transnational meeting place where InSTEP students in Dadaab, gradate students and professionals from around the world discuss the challenges of post-secondary education, difficulties specific to the refugee camp environment, research projects and assignment requirements for InSTEP. A second online forum was opened to all BHER students and now operates in addition to the women’s only group. The establishment of transnational peer networks and mentorship programs works towards providing students in Dadaab with the same opportunities for support and growth students around the world access and will be key to supporting the success of students as they move through their programs.

The blogs that will be shared here were written by myself, a graduate assistant working with the BHER project, and volunteers that have been participating in the online forum with the InSTEP students from Dadaab. In these blogs, we will share insights on their experiences in the forum and reflect on the benefits and challenges of this transnational peer network.

Background Information on Dadaab

Dadaab, located in northeastern Kenya, is the largest refugee camp in the world. The five camps that make up the Dadaab camp complex (Dagahaley, Hagadera, Kambios, Ifo and Ifo 2) are home to 465,611 registered refugees, a number that does not capture the thousands of others who remain unregistered.[iii] Medicines sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) describes the refugees housed in these camps as living “shadows of lives” as a result of the continued state of insecurity and the lack of basic services including food, shelter and healthcare.[iv] Dadaab, originally intended as a temporary solution to house refugees fleeing Somalia’s civil war, is now over 20 years old and many current inhabitants have lived in the camps for most of their lives. Historically, three long-term solutions to refugee crises are sought: voluntary repatriation, integration into the local community or resettlement to a third country. The state of conflict in Somalia is unlikely to subside in the foreseeable future and as a result of the huge numbers in Dadaab, local integration is not a viable option. The growing reticence of countries around the world to resettle refugees, largely as a result of strained resources in the already overburdened global south and a lack of political will in the increasingly self interested global north, has severely curtailed resettlement options. The net result of these outcomes is the continued protraction of the refugee condition for nearly half a million people in the Dadaab camps. As acceptance of the fact that these camps will continue to exist grows, it is clear that efforts must be made to not only ensure that the basic needs of individuals in the camps are met, but opportunities to access a life that is not merely ‘a shadow’ of what it should be exist.

Education remains a luxury that few in the Dadaab camps are able to enjoy. 43% of the over 90,000 children in the camps attend primary school and even fewer, only 12%, move on to attend secondary school.[v] The main reasons for this are a lack of funding and extremely limited capacity to provide education. The schools are stretched far past their capacities and there are few qualified or trained teachers in the camps. Further, while there is some access to primary and secondary education, opportunities to continue forward with tertiary education are extremely few.[vi] Until the BHER project, refugees struggled to complete university courses through distance education or competed for scholarships through the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), which has offered scholarships in Canadian universities to 1,350 refugees from around the world over the past 35 years.[vii] Although invaluable, the latter cannot hope to answer the needs of the thousands of refugees who would attend university each year if given the chance. In order to address both the lack of access to tertiary education as well as the severe shortage of trained teachers in the camps, the BHER project was born, a partnership between WUSC, Windle Trust, York University, the University of British Columbia, African Virtual University, Moi University and Kenyatta University. BHER provides men and women in Dadaab the opportunity to earn accredited diplomas in teaching and also a chance to earn university degrees in subjects including community health, development, business and natural sciences. Bringing tertiary education into refugee camps allows limited funding to provide education to a far greater number of students.


[i] Dryden-Peterson, Sarah. (2011). Refugee Education: A Global Review. UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service.

[ii] BHER Partners. (2013). Building Primary/Secondary Teaching Capacities in the Dadaab Refugee Camps and Locally in Dadaab, Kenya by Increasing Access to Higher Education. Baseline study report submitted to CIDA, May 8th, 2013.

[iii] UNCHR. (2014). UNHCR camp population statistics.

[iv] Medecins sans Frontiers. 2012. Dadaab: Shadows of Lives. Report. Accessed February 3, 2014 from

[v] Irin. 2012. Kenya-Somalia: Hungry for learning in Dadaab camps. Humanitarian News and Analysis, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

[vi] Bronwell, Ginanne. (2013). Bringing universities to refugee camps in Kenya. New York Times, online. Accessed February 5, 2013 from

[vii] Bronwell, Ginanne. (2013).