In world first, biggest refugee camp gets university

The campus is being set up in Kenya near the Dadaab refugee camp, home to more than 500,000 people sheltering from Somali conflict.

IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation/Reuters
A handout picture taken in 2011 shows Somali refugees in Kenya's Dadaab Refugee Camp, situated northeast of the capital Nairobi near the Somali border.

Refugees in the world's largest refugee camp will soon be able to go for higher education at the world's first university being set up near a camp for its inhabitants.

The campus is being set up by Kenya's Kenyatta University (KU) near the sprawling “city” of tents of Dadaab, where more than 500,000 people are sheltering from war and famine. It will serve both refugees and local Kenyans.

Humanitarian officials hail it as a first for refugees, while education experts say it's a creative solution for cases of long-term conflict in Africa

“Providing education can help solve conflicts in troubled zones in the long-term. With education people get sobered up. They also feel actualized and have hope for the future,” says Dr, Josephine Gitome, the director of KU’s Center for Refugees and Empowerment which is implementing the project.

KU has partnered with Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER), a Canadian and Kenyan development partnership together with international organizations and institutions to establish the Kenyatta University Dadaab Campus.

BHER is a partnership which makes educational programs available to refugees where they need it. It is providing education through online distance courses in Dadaab and along the Thai-Burma border. 

“Refugees who have completed secondary school almost universally voice the desire to attend university, but to date international scholarships in the Global North remain the only opportunity.These scholarships are few and benefit 1 percent,” Professor Wenona Giles of York University, the BHER lead partner, said in the Kenyan media. 

Some Kenyans and officials have been pushing to relocate the camp to Somalia. However, the university hasn't generated much controversy because it also serves local residents and could remain even if the camp is closed.

“It’s on our soil and so we are the greatest beneficiaries,” said Farah Maalim, a member of Parliament from the region, in a newspaper announcement. 

The campus is a big leap forward and a win-win situation for Kenya and the refugees, according to Dominik Bartsch, regional head of operations of the United Nations refugee agency.

“It will serve as an incentive for refugee children to complete school and proceed to obtain higher qualifications,” said Mr. Bartsch at the official launch of the campus on Oct. 9.

The first students start in January of 2013, and will study for certificates, bachelor diplomas in fields including Finance, Marketing, Project Management, Education, Public Administration, Community Mobilization, and Peace and Conflict studies. There will be regular courses with lectures beginning in the morning and ending in the evening, along with distance learning and weekend options. 

Moses Mukhwana, an official of the Lutheran World Federation at the camp says many refugees who could not access university education were very enthusiastic. 

“They will not need passes as often is the case when they have to join institutions out of the camp," he says, referring to identity cards that require registration with the Kenyan government. "We also hope for improved co-existence."

Mohammed Bashir, a 25-year-old refugee who serves as the camp's webmaster, said in a telephone interview; “This is the best thing that can happen to us refugees.”

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