In partnership with the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project, the ESPMI Network is delighted to showcase a series of blog posts from individuals working on the BHER project, as well as students who are actually participating in this initiative on the ground in the Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya.
Stay tuned as this series of blog posts is rolled out over the next coming weeks. For more information on the BHER project, please visit:
Innovations to Refugee Education: The Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Project and Transnational Student Networks
Introduction to BHER and the Volunteer Online Community
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 fromhttps://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/publications/reports/2012/Dadaab_Shadows_of_Lives.pdf.
[v] Irin. 2012. Kenya-Somalia: Hungry for learning in Dadaab camps. Humanitarian News and Analysis, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. http://www.irinnews.org/report/92256/kenya-somalia-hungry-for-learning-in-dadaab-camps.
[vi] Bronwell, Ginanne. (2013). Bringing universities to refugee camps in Kenya. New York Times, online. Accessed February 5, 2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/07/world/africa/bringing-universities-to-refugee-camps-in-kenya.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&.
[vii] Bronwell, Ginanne. (2013).
Capturing the Benefits of Virtual Peer Communities: Innovating Supports for Refugee Education in the Dadaab Refugee Camps
In August 2013, the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) project offered a university preparation program called Increased access and Skills for Tertiary Education (InSTEP) in the Dadaab refugee camps. InSTEP is a mandatory stage in accessing BHER university programs; it provides intensive training in English, information technology and research methods. Thirty-three women and 149 men began the program in August. In December, during the second of three one month sessions that will conclude in April 2014, 35 more women joined InSTEP as part of an active initiative to increase gender equity in program enrolment. Currently, 68 out of a total 217 students (31%) are women. As part of its guiding mandate, BHER is working to reach gender parity in tertiary education enrollment by the end of its third year. In order to ensure that target is met, the entry requirements were adjusted for female applicants; a D+ average was set as the threshold for admittance. A remaining challenge is supporting female students to ensure that they successfully complete InSTEP and move into the accredited university programs provided by BHER this fall.
Towards that end, BHER established an online forum through Facebook that connects women from the New Scholars Network (NSN) with female students in InSTEP. The NSN is a group of like-minded young scholars and practitioners focused on creating and encouraging a cooperative and helpful professional network for those working in the field of forced migration. The NSN is part of the Refugee Research Network, a York University based global network of researchers and academics working on refugee and forced migration issues. I am a member of the NSN and I joined the Facebook group along with 19 other NSN volunteers in November. The value in partnering NSN volunteers with InSTEP students is that we are peers. We are also young scholars, we are of similar age and many of us have conducted research on refugee issues or are doing so now. The forum operates through a private group only accessible by those approved to join. Currently, 26 women in InSTEP are part of this group, most of whom access Facebook through their cell phones. The use of social media, and in particular Facebook, as a tool for connecting students in Dadaab with peers around the world is an innovative strategy that overcomes the barriers that students in Dadaab face accessing reliable internet connections over a computer.
Over the last few months, the online forum has served as a virtual transnational meeting place where InSTEP students and graduate students from around the world discuss the challenges of post-secondary education, challenges specific to the refugee camp environment, research projects and the particularities of assignments assigned in InSTEP. Many of the InSTEP students ask questions of one another as well as NSN volunteers surrounding time-management, overcoming challenges in learning, accessing information online, managing cultural and domestic expectations and responsibilities alongside their professional endeavors.
In discussing these issues, there have been opportunities for us to share common ground as students and as women. For example, the women in InSTEP have many responsibilities aside from coursework. Several women have described the paid and unpaid work they do to either support family incomes or take care of their families. This has been a point of commonality with some of us who also have familial obligations outside of university coursework and continue with paid work to support ourselves. The challenges that the women in Dadaab face that differ from our experiences have also become clear. Fluctuating levels of insecurity in the camps has made it difficult for them to enjoy freedom of movement on several occasions, and overt instances of sexual violence across the camp region were highlighted by the women as ongoing realities. Although speaking to one another across huge geographical distances does little to address these issues, it is powerful to observe the women from Dadaab using the forum to highlight the times and places where insecurity becomes particularly concerning. There has also been an expressed solidarity, at least, in our exchange of well-wishes and wellbeing towards each other online. The online community acts as a venue that provides women enrolled in InSTEP with an academic community that extends their classroom experience. In fact, aside from the online group, there are few opportunities for InSTEP students to collaborate with other scholars in such a way. In simple terms, the online community provides access to support and mentorship from colleagues around the world that can share in the learning process of these students and provide access to information and resources that are difficult to access from within Dadaab. Between InSTEP sessions students disperse and, unsurprisingly, other obligations demand their attention. The online forum has been valuable during this gap between sessions for several reasons: there has been continuity of the presence of the online community as a site of support, ongoing conversations have encouraged the women in Dadaab to practice English and we have continued to talk about research interests and projects, which encourages students to return to complete InSTEP in April and move onto post-secondary programming.
As a university student myself, I enjoy many opportunities to connect with peers to share ideas, collaborate on projects and seek answers to questions regarding assignments, research and funding. These opportunities enrich my learning experience and success as a student. I believe that the establishment of this online forum, a transnational peer community, works towards providing students in Dadaab with the same opportunities for support and growth students around the world have and will be an important tool to support the success of students in Dadaab as they move through their programs with BHER. A true, virtual, community has formed and I believe that over time it will continue to strengthen and become increasingly valuable. As a female only space, the online forum encourages open dialogue and over time it is my hope that it will allow trust to develop between members of the group.
In the upcoming months, volunteers from the NSN will continue to communicate with and support InSTEP students as they prepare to begin university courses. InSTEP students have been encouraged to share their stories as they progress through the program, and several blogs written by InSTEP students will be posted soon. Stay tuned to read those posts and learn more about the project and the experiences of the first students to begin post-secondary education through BHER.
My experience of the BHER project and online forum
It has been a great experience participating in the BHER project, a project I feel is very necessary and long overdue. I do not think that a few years ago the women in Dadaab, nor I, would have ever envisaged communicating on an online transnational learning facility or forum that would aid the Dadaab women pursue their post-secondary education.
What is remarkable about the BHER project is the unprecedented opportunities and possibilities it creates for women students. This project initiates much needed educational hope and a future in a challenging environment. The BHER project is ideal in bringing higher education and opportunities to the women of Dadaab, transcending barriers and borders through its online community. It is encouraging to be a part of a project that actively promotes women’s education and helps redress the inequalities they experience in camps. There is a famous saying in Africa that ‘educate a woman and you educate a nation’. Again touching on the possibilities of this project as it expands, as the women pursue their studies, with our aid and graduate, one can imagine the ripple effect it will have within their camp and greater community. There are many that they will inspire and most importantly, they will have confidence in themselves to pursue better careers.
At its core, this project and online forum gives the women hope and a realistic way to pursue their education and build their future. There is a direct action plan and pathway that the women can follow and above all, through the online community, there is a nurturing and supportive network ready to assist when needed. As an online community of women with a shared goal, invested in seeing the Dadaab women succeed, we work together. The Dadaab women can connect with us online as professionals in the field, as we offer advice and educational support. I think the mentoring and support we offer through the online community is highly encouraging to the women of Dadaab as they know that someone on the other side of the world cares and is routing for their success.
We, as professionals in the field, are also learning a lot from these admirable women. What is most impressive is their enthusiasm and perseverance towards their work, given the difficulty in learning academic English and other demanding research skills. Additionally, these women have to balance their educational goals with the reality of living in a camp; its dangers and limitations as well as balancing everyday household tasks that, as women, are part of daily responsibility. Despite these challenges, these women students remain thirsty to learn and constantly reach out on the forum for more information or a causal talk.
I look forward to being able to communicate better and on deeper levels with the women of Dadaab and to supporting them reach their educational and life goals. There are undoubtedly many challenges the BHER project will have to deal with as it unfolds, particularly challenges surrounding Internet access – something that will allow us to better communicate and assist the women. I am excited to be a part of the online community as I feel that the supportive environment is crucial in assisting the women attain their overall educational goals. The Dadaab women have 24/7 access to equally ambitious and hardworking women who have their best interest at heart and, perhaps most importantly, are themselves examples of how educational dreams can become reality.