This article is one of two focusing on education issues for Somali refugees in Kenya.
DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—As students in Kenya’s education system sat this year for exams necessary to advance to higher grades or graduate with a high school diploma, thousands of Somali refugees couldn’t participate, even though they had also taken classes and studied hard.
“My dreams are now shattered,” said Mohamed Swaleh. “I have no future right now.”
Swaleh, 20, spoke by phone from Baidoa, a town in southwestern Somalia where he settled earlier this year after living in Kenya for 17 years.
He is one of hundreds of Somali students who have left Kenya in the past two years amid calls from Kenyan leaders to close Dadaab, a cluster of refugee settlements with a population of nearly 240,000 as of this fall. Until recently, the complex was considered the world’s largest refugee camp and held more than 300,000 refugees, most of whom fled poverty and conflict in Somalia, where civil war has raged since the early 1990s. Many Kenyans view the camp as a breeding ground for Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-linked terror group responsible for attacks throughout East Africa.
Now back in Somalia, Swaleh said he could return to Kenya by sneaking across the porous border with Somalia, but Kenyan officials have suspended registering new refugees for exams. “We students were promised that we would come back and sit for exams,” he said. “That has not happened, and we are worried.”
He is among millions of young people around the globe whose education have been disrupted by conflict and displacement, even when they return home. UNHCR, the United Nations’ chief agency for refugees, reported earlier this year that more than 3.5 million school-age refugees had not attended school at all in 2016, and many others face hardships when they try to resume education upon returning to war-torn homelands. (See a related article, “Half of Refugee Children Are Not in School, Report Says.”)
Almost 74,000 refugees have returned to Somalia since December 2014, according to the United Nations. The U.N. refugee agency brokered an agreement with the governments of Kenya and Somalia in 2013 for the return of more refugees to Somalia over the next few years and established a framework that stressed that repatriations should be voluntary.
In a report last year, Human Rights Watch challenged whether Somali refugees were in fact leaving Kenya voluntarily. Many of those the humanitarian organization interviewed in Dadaab said they had agreed to return home because they feared Kenya would force them out if they stayed. In a response, UNHCR said it shared some of the concerns raised in the report and would continue working with the government of Kenya to ensure that refugees’ rights were respected.
The Lutheran World Federation, which oversees much of the education in Dadaab, said many school-age children couldn’t complete their studies because of the repatriations.
“Many students are missing their primary and secondary final exams after having gone through several years of education,” said Lennart Hernander, the federation’s representative in Kenya. “The impact is huge. Many students are returning to Somalia with their parents. This is affecting the morale of the remaining students at the camp.”
Teachers at the camp have also expressed concern. “Most of the students here who missed exams in 2016 wanted to go back to Somalia with their families,” said Eugene Okello, a senior teacher at Nasib Secondary, a school run by the U.N. refugee agency. “It’s sad.”
At least 145 out of 1,148 candidates for a secondary-school certificate missed their exams last year, according to the Lutheran World Federation and the United Nations. The groups are now tallying how many missed this year’s exams in November.
“The future of these students who missed exams is uncertain, because they cannot get education in Somalia due to the current insecurity,” said Okello. Five of his students missed the exam this year, Okello said. “I think they would have achieved their dreams from here should they have remained.”
Missed exams and the continuing conflict in Somalia are only part of the problem, Hernander said. Because Somalia and Kenya have different curricula, repatriated refugees have little hope of receiving a diploma at home. And most of their parents cannot afford to pay school fees.
A university education is also beyond the reach of most families, and many institutions are still recovering from the effects of two decades of war. (See a related article, “The Splintering of Somalia Has Crippled Education.”)
Kenya has been trying to reduce the number of refugees it hosts for years. It issued a demand for the United Nations to close Dadaab after Al Shabaab gunmen attacked Garissa University College in April 2015, claiming the lives of 148 students.
But some refugees have vowed to stay at the camp and finish their exams and studies before they can go back to Somalia or other countries that might accept them.
“I will be happy when I will finally get my certificate,” said Nasra Mohammed, 16. “I’m going to remain in Kenya so that I can join secondary school. If I go back to Somalia, I will not continue with my studies because the education system there is not free.”
Dadaab, which has seven secondary schools and several primary schools, is also a haven for Somali refugees seeking education in other countries. Many young people have received scholarships to Canadian and other foreign universities, said teachers, students and others.
Those successes have led some of the students who went back to Somalia to regret their decisions.
Bashir Abdullahi, who returned home in July, was supposed to sit for his final secondary exams this year. United Nations officials said he could return to Kenya, he said, but Kenyan officials won’t let him return.
Abdullahi, 22, said he was afraid that he might be pressed into joining Al Shabaab or another militant group if he sat idle in Somalia.
“I regret coming back,” he said on the phone from Baidoa. “I had a bright a future while at the Dadaab camp. There was free education in Dadaab and scholarship opportunity to study abroad. But in Somalia we will be forced to join Al Shabaab because it’s the only option available here.”