In Rwanda, refugees realise dream of a university degree

Published by Théophile Niyitegeka
On 20 November 2016 saa 12:38
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Kizib - Inside a red-brick building with a tin roof in western Rwanda, a group of young people are hard at work studying for a US-accredited university degree.

But these are no ordinary students: they are Congolese refugees for whom such a qualification could spell an escape from stateless limbo.

Over the past year, a Rwandan charity called Kepler has been offering refugees in Kiziba camp the chance to take online degree courses from the Southern New Hampshire University in the United States.

Since the mid-1990s, Kiziba has housed thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is currently home to 17 000 people, some of whom were born and raised in the camp.

Until recently a university degree was an impossible dream with local fees at a Rwandan university costing up to $1 200 a year, well beyond the reach of young refugees.

And even if they did get the money, the country’s main universities are all in the capital Kigali, which is a three-hour drive from this isolated hilltop camp.

But this year, a group of 25 refugees all in their 20s began studying communications and management.

"Before finishing high school, I had no hope of going to university but now I see it’s possible!" enthuses Eugenie Manirafasha, who was just six months old when her family fled to Rwanda in 1996.

Now she is one step closer to realising her ambition of becoming a hospital director.

Education for freedom

The refugees follow an online version of the US course but at a less demanding pace, allowing them up to five years to complete the degree, with much of the first year devoted to getting their spoken and written English up to scratch.

Access to higher education "is very important for refugees all over the world," says Nina Weaver, who runs Kepler’s educational programmes.

Even more so in Rwanda where refugees "have the right to work and to move around freely which is not the case in many other countries," she says.

Having a degree gives them "an opportunity to integrate better" into Rwandan society, as well as a way to "give back" to the country that has taken them in, Weaver explains.

A university education also offers them an escape route from dependence on charity handouts, says Mark Roeder of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

"Tertiary education is one way to make refugees independent," he said. "It gives a boost to (the) refugee mentality and gives them hope they are not being forgotten by the international community."