Kenya: Secondary school refugee students’ dreams for the future
19 March 2019

JRS-sponsored students engage in a group discussion during a recent workshop hosted by JRS in Nairobi, Kenya. The students talked about their vision for the future and how to how to translate this vision into reality (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Nairobi - "I feel like I've been in a meeting of the African Union!" This is how 17-year-old Abel* from Ethiopia described the atmosphere at a three day workshop hosted by JRS for secondary school refugee students in Nairobi, Kenya. Between the 12th and 15th of December 2018, 48 adolescent boys and girls sponsored by JRS in secondary school spent time together at the Benedictine Retreat and Conference Center in Limuru, a town located at the eastern end of the Great Rift Valley, about 30 kilometres northwest of Nairobi.

Conceived as “Life Skills” workshops, these gatherings are organized each year to offer these young people an opportunity to exchange views on a particular topic. This time round, the theme of the workshop was “Mental health issues and resilience, sexual behaviour and personal responsibility”. The main objective was to engage the students in a conversation about how to shape their own future but also to offer them the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company and forge new friendships.

The students’ exuberance at the end of the workshop made it clear this objective had been achieved. The workshop’s success rested partly on the excellent choice of venue. The monastery is located in a breathtakingly beautiful and serene area, immersed in lush vegetation where everything speaks of life! When asked about what he felt about the workshop, 17-year-old Robert from DR Congo had this to say: “these days I asked myself, ‘why can’t we live always the way we lived during these days?’ We treated each other as brothers and sisters; we can make this intelligent choice in life!”

This year’s workshop was also special for another reason. The moderator was John Bosco Ngendakurio, a Burundian ex-refugee who, as a young boy fleeing violence in his native country in 1994, found himself alone in a camp in Tanzania. For years he was a recipient of JRS support until he was resettled to Norway. He now lives in Australia where he works as a policy advisor to the Queensland state government.

No other story could have been more inspirational to this group of young people than John Bosco’s. It is a story of hard work, resilience, life choices infused with the spirit of reconciliation, peace and forgiveness as well as outstanding academic achievements, all of which were of great encouragement for the students. He was the perfect role model the students needed to be able to confront with purpose and confidence their own particular condition as refugee teenagers in Kenya and develop the mental attitude needed to face everyday life.

John Bosco skilfully guided them as they “watched” their life with its share of challenges and sufferings but also courage and resilience. Inspired by his life story, they dared to confront their own painful experiences. They did not avoid topics such as vendetta nor did they recoil from embracing the spirit of forgiveness. Furthermore, they also acknowledged with gratitude the many beautiful moments in their lives and felt emboldened to turn towards hope which guides everyone from within and to unleash their youthful natural aptitude to look to the future, to dream it differently and to begin realizing it right here and right now.

A student tends to a vegetable garden during the workshop hosted by JRS for secondary school refugee students sponsored by JRS at the Benedictine Monastery at Limuru, near Nairobi, Kenya (JRS)

It was not all serious talk, however. The monastery’s fantastic gardens offered these teenagers the perfect escape from the tumultuous existence of the informal settlements on the periphery of Nairobi where most of them live. New friendships burgeoned through leisurely walks in the woods or visits to the beautiful tea plantations. They took delight in working in vegetable gardens, entertained themselves by feeding rabbits and pigs and some even had a go at milking cows to the amusement their friends, although it was hard to tell whether this sentiment was shared by the concerned cows!

*Names were changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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