Kenya: Accompaniment amidst challenges – A reflection of the times in Kakuma
06 July 2013

A group of pupils participate enthusiastically during a lesson in one of the primary schools ran by JRS at Kakuma Refugee Camp. (Christian Fuchs/JRS).
They also reminded me of what it took for most people who worked in the refugee camp to remain focused in such a stressful and demanding situation.
Kakuma, 6 July, 2013 - “They have taken away my home but they cannot take away my future.” These were words on a T-Shirt very often worn by one of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Scholarship beneficiaries who used to visit my office while I was working in Kakuma. These words spoke volumes to me as I came to the end of my two and a half years of working with and accompanying refugees in Kakuma. They also reminded me of what it took for most people who worked in the refugee camp to remain focused in such a stressful and demanding situation. Above all, they reminded me to be more aware and appreciate how my experience of accompanying refugees has changed my life.

When I arrived in Kakuma in January 2011, I was surprised to see such a huge semi-desert that existed in Kenya. Flying over the dry land of Turkana and travelling from Lodwar to Kakuma by road, I felt I was instead in a desert. The environment, climate, poverty and way of life of the local people in Turkana is so different from the Kenya I knew. The life of the refugees on the other hand was stressful and demanding. Working with JRS gave me the opportunity to know a little more of my country and the plight of the refugees. This opportunity opened my eyes to the suffering of the refugees and to realities which helped me to appreciate nature, the gift of water and what I have received in life.

Challenges in accessing education. I was also more in touch with the world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and how they work. I learnt that no NGO is independent and that they all need one another to provide services in the camp. JRS whose mission is to accompany, serve and advocate for the cause of the refugees and forcibly displaced persons, focuses on social services including education, safe havens, counseling and alternative healing, mental health and pastoral services. Through the education programme where I played the role of an Education Coordinator, some refugees received scholarships to join Kenyan boarding primary, and secondary schools.

In the camp where there were so many vulnerable cases, it was a challenge for me to ensure that JRS scholarships in the camp are given to the most vulnerable among the refugees. My role was to advertise different kinds of scholarships, interview, recruit, seek vacancies for refugees in boarding schools across the country and accompany selected students on admission to their respective schools. Accompaniment of these young people continued even while they were at school. I found myself basically linking the refugee students to Kenyan boarding schools. Very often I represented the JRS Education programme at coordination meetings and activities where all the partner agencies responsible for education in the camp, discussed and found a way forward to various challenges.

I also participated in survey and needs assessment for education programmes in the camp. I followed up the children’s social, academic, medical welfare by visiting them in schools where I placed them once in a term. While admitting, visiting and meeting individual students, I paid attention to their material, spiritual and psychological needs. Once the needs were clear, I referred the students to other agencies that provided such needs and assistance to help the students. My main role was thus bridging the “world of our displaced brothers and sisters to the world of citizens” and advocating for refugee students needs and for co-existence of the two groups.

Very often, I had streams of parents, foster parents and guardians coming to my office seeking   help ranging from material needs, advice for education of their children and a need to  to be listened to. During holidays, I organized workshops and reflection videos for both scholarship beneficiaries and their parents. I also organized other community service activities for students and carried it together with them. Activities organized for scholarship beneficiaries were such as clean up exercises and tree planting in the camp. I also organized with the social worker for visits of particularly physically challenged students who were not able to make it very often to the office. Visits to homes of the challenged children were done during school holidays. All these activities helped me to get in touch with the plight of the refugees.

My experience with refugees. My experience of interacting with many refugees at times revealed to me that, many refugees feel forgotten in many ways by the world and even by God. Many times, some refugees I met expressed feelings of frustration, anger, giving up, loss of freedom and everything else. A scholarship to attend boarding schools outside the camp, gave them opportunities to learn and connect with other students from the other world which they had lost. This also restored their dignity and prepared and gave them hope for the future. I felt so privileged to facilitate this bridging and reconciling of the world of the refugees and that of the citizens

From time to time when working with the refugees I collected data from the camp. Very often while carrying out this exercise in the field; I observed that the camp lacked enough (Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Special Needs) schools, facilities and learning material for both regular, Vulnerable and Special Needs students. Taking these students to schools that were equipped with relevant facilities gave them an opportunity and possibility to study. This also relieved parents who were already struggling with so much stress.

Touched by appreciation from beneficiaries. Among the scholarship beneficiaries were young girls and boys with high protection risks of being married off at an early tender age and/or dropping out of schools for various reasons. Working with these young people made me come to understand more that a safe environment plays a key role in learning. During school visits, I was very often touched when many expressed and appreciated that the visit helped them realize how important and valued they were and of how much they were cared for. One touching gesture I always received and treasured was from children with hearing impairment who at the end of the visits touched their chest with crossed arms appreciating the visits and recognizing my friendship with them. What was encouraging for me is that many schools were always ready to give JRS more places as most of our children were disciplined and always worked hard and succeeded in their education. With the education they received, they in turn used it to serve their fellow refugees in the camp.

As I reflect over my experience of serving the refugee students, I realize that though I did not directly teach these young people, my role was to help them know that they were important, valued and not forgotten. Above all, I ensured that they got good schools through which they could receive good education. Education would empower them with skills and prepare them to face the future with hope. With education, the refugees realized that though their homes in their mother countries had been taken away, they still had a future which could not be taken away from them. Education restored their dignity and prepared them to rebuild their homes and countries upon returning to their home countries or when they were given the possibility of resettlement. It helped them live with hope for the future and empowered them to change their situation.

Thanks to JRS that gave me this opportunity to have this noble experience and to give my services to our displaced brothers and sisters.

By Sr. Margaret Mwarili, former Education Coordinator – JRS Kakuma

JRS began work in Kakuma refugee camp in 1994 to respond to the thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Sudan. Located in north-western Kenya near the Sudanese border, the camp opened in 1992 and currently hosts around 120,000 refugees. JRS provides refugees with the opportunity to build new skills for life outside the camp, through a psychosocial counselling and vocational training programme, pastoral care, as well as support for primary, secondary and higher education.