KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya–Refugee students at this sprawling settlement in northwestern Kenya and in the Dadaab refugee complex on the other side of the country have defied the odds to score high grades in Kenya’s national examinations for primary and secondary school students.
Their achievements are inspiring others to study, with the hope of one day attending university.
“I worked hard in class, despite insufficient teachers and learning equipment at the school,” said Abdiweli Hussein, a 20-year-old Somali native who has been a refugee in Kenya since 2008. Hussein scored 67 points out of possible 84 in Kenya’s secondary-school exam. The minimum score needed to enter a university is 46 points.
“Life as a refugee is hard, but one needs to focus on studying to achieve their dreams,” said Hussein, who now wants to pursue petroleum engineering at the university.
His success so far has not been easy. “I don’t know where my parents are,” said Hussein. “I was brought here by my aunt.”
But hard work, drive and passion helped him to achieve his goal of finishing secondary school with good grades.
“I’m very grateful for scoring such high marks despite all the difficulties and challenges that come with being in a refugee camp,” he said. “I want to encourage other refugees to work hard in class because it’s the only way they can change their lives.”
His classmate and fellow Somali, Abdirahman Abdi, 19, scored 73 points out of 84.
Abdi’s relatives brought him to the camp in 2008. His parents had left their home to find food and never returned. He didn’t know if they were still alive. Today, he wants to study computer science at a university.
“I want to encourage other refugees to work hard so that they can change their lives,” he said. “My aim is to go back to Somalia and help rebuild the nation by helping young people access education.”
Hussein and Abdi both attended Waberi High School in a camp that is part of the Dadaab refugee complex, where more than 235,000 refugees and asylum seekers live. Roughly 50 miles from the Somali border, Dadaab is a cluster of camps that comprise one of the largest refugee settlements in the world.
The Kakuma complex, near Kenya’s border with South Sudan, now holds more than 185,000 refugees.
A 14-year-old among them, Magot Thuch Ayii, scored 413 points out of 500 in Kenya’s primary-school exam, becoming one of the top students in the country. Magot, who is from South Sudan, was a student at Kakuma’s Cush Primary School.
Over a million candidates registered for the primary-school exams, while more than 615,000 took the secondary-school tests. The Ministry of Education oversees the exams. Kenya adopted the exams in 1985 after education reforms that established study tracks that include eight years of primary education, four of secondary education, and then university study for the best students.
Refugee students here and elsewhere in Kenya’s camps have been performing well in the primary and secondary examinations, despite the trauma they go through as displaced people, said officials with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, which runs schools in the camps.
“They perform very well despite numerous gaps, such as insufficient teaching and learning materials, untrained teachers and overcrowded classrooms,” said Mohamed Hure, an education officer in Kakuma. “Refugees can perform very well if they are provided with the right school environment and adequate resources.”
Last year’s performance by refugee students has especially inspired other candidates in the camps to study for this year’s national examinations.
“I’m prepared, and I will pass this year’s exams with high marks,” said Edwin Thon, a primary-school student in Kakuma. “Refugees can also become top performers.”
But Samuel Zeleke, 44, a parent in the Kakuma camp, lamented that opportunities, even for the best students, are limited. He appealed to donors and other development groups to sponsor higher education for refugees.
“We’re happy because our children are performing very well,” said the father of seven. “But our children lack scholarships to continue with their education, and they end up teaching primary and secondary schools as untrained teachers.”
Hure agreed. Limited access to Kenyan secondary schools and few scholarship opportunities continue to pose a challenge to young refugees, he said.
But Thon is determined to work hard and excel in the exams despite all the difficulties.
“I know that I’m going to excel,” he said. “I want to be at the top so that I can get a scholarship.”