RSCJ | Refugees in Northern Kenya

My Ministry with Refugees in Northern Kenya

"They have taken away my home But they cannot take away my future"

These were the words on a T-Shirt recently worn by one of the Jesuit Refugees Service (JRS) Scholarship beneficiaries in Kakuma. These words speak volumes to me as I reflect over my experience in my mission of working with and accompanying the refugees. These words also remind me to remain focused in the stressful and demanding situation of the refugees. Above all, they call me to be more aware and appreciate how my experience of accompanying refugees is changing my life.

Visit with refugee scholarship beneficiaries in schools outside Kakuma camp

When I arrived here in Kakuma, Turkana, Northern Kenya, I was surprised to see such a huge semi-desert existed in Kenya. Flying over the dry land of Turkana and travelling from Lodwar to Kakuma, I felt I was in a desert. The environment, climate, the poverty and the way of life of the people here in Turkana is so different from the Kenya I know. The life of the refugees is stressful and demanding. Working with JRS has given me the opportunity to know a little more of my country and the plight of refugees. This opportunity has opened my eyes to realities which help me to appreciate nature, the gift of water and what I have received in life.

I am also more in touch with the world of the NGOs and how they work. I have learnt that a number of NGOs here in Kakuma work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to implement various refugee programs. It is often clear that no NGO is independent but all need the others to run the camp. The agencies, including JRS that I work with, are implementing partners and receive part of their funding from UNHCR which is the operating agency in the camp.

JRS whose mission is to accompany, serve and advocate for the cause of the refugees and forcibly displaced persons, focus on social services including Education, Counseling, Alternative Healing, Mental health and Pastoral services. Through the programme of education where I play the role of an Education/scholarship co-coordinator, many refugees receive different skills through scholarship to Kenyan boarding primary, and secondary schools. Older students are also supported in their tertiary Education.

In the camp where there are so many vulnerable cases, it is a challenge for me to ensure that JRS scholarships are given to the most vulnerable among the refugees. My role is to advertise different kinds of scholarships, interview, recruit, seek for vacancies for refugees in boarding schools across the country and accompany selected students on admission to their respective schools. Accompaniment of these young people continues even while they are at school. I also coordinate the programme for certificate and degree students. I find myself basically linking these students to Kenyan boarding schools, to the Institute of Social Work and Community Development (KISWCD) and the University of South Africa (UNISA). Very often I represent JRS Education programme at Education coordination meetings and activities where all the partner agencies responsible for education in the camp, discuss and find a way forward to Educational challenges. I also participate in survey and needs' assessment for education programmes in the camp. Once in a term, I follow up the children's social, academic, medical welfare by visiting them in schools where I have placed them. While admitting, visiting and meeting individual students, I pay attention to their material, spiritual and psychological needs. Once the needs are clear, I refer to the other Agencies that have specialization in the area of need or provide the needs and advices to help the students in their general life. My main role is thus bridging the "world of refugees to the world of citizens" and advocating for co-existence of the two groups.

Very often, I have a stream of parents coming to my office seeking for different help ranging from material help, advice for education of their children and a listening ear. During holidays, I organize for workshops and reflection videos for both scholarship beneficiaries and their parents. I also organize other community service activities for the students and carry these out together with them. Organized activities include clean up exercises and tree planting in the camp. In addition I organize with the social worker for visits of particularly physically challenged students who are not able to make it very often to the office. Visits of homes of the challenged children are done during school holidays. All these activities help me to be in touch with the plight of the refugees.

My experience of interacting with many refugees at times reveals to me that, many refugees feel forgotten in many ways by the world and even by God. Many times, they express feelings of frustration, anger, giving up, loss of freedom and everything else. Scholarship to boarding schools outside the camp and to diploma and degree courses, gives them opportunities to learn and connect with other students from the other world which they have lost. This also restores their dignity and prepares and gives them hope for the future. I feel so privileged to facilitate this bridging and reconciling of the world of the refugees.

From time to time when working with the refugees we collect data from the camp. Very often while carrying out this exercise in the field; I observe that a camp lacks sufficient Secondary, Tertiary and Special Needs' schools, facilities and learning material for both regular, vulnerable and special needs students. Taking these students to schools that are equipped with relevant facilities gives them the opportunity and possibility to study. This also relieves parents who are already struggling with so much stress.

Among the scholarship beneficiaries are 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 has made me come to understand more that safe environment plays a key role in learning. During school visits, I am very often touched when many express and appreciate that the visits help them realize how important and valued they are and that they are cared for. One touching gesture I always receive is from children with hearing impairment who at the end of the visits touch their chest with crossed arms appreciating the visits and recognizing my friendship with them. What is encouraging for me is that many schools are always ready to give JRS more places as our children are always working hard and most of them have succeeded in their education. With the education they receive, they in turn use it to serve their fellow refugees in the camp.

As I reflect over my experience in mission, I realize that though I do not directly teach these young people, my role is to help them know that they are important, valued and not forgotten. Above all, I ensure that they get good schools through which they can receive a good education, an education that empowers them with skills and prepares them to face the future with hope. With education, the refugees realize that though their homes in their mother countries have been taken away, they still have a future which cannot be taken a way from them. Education restores their dignity and prepares them to rebuild their homes and countries upon returning back to their countries or when they are given resettlement. It helps them live with hope for the future and empowers them to change their situation.

Margaret Mwarili, RSCJ