Reflections from a decade of expanding higher education for refugees - transitions to employment

By Nathalie Munyampenda
On 20 June 2024 at 02:56

Every year, on the 20th of June, we celebrate World Refugee Day. For the last 20 years, Kepler has been dedicated to providing pathways to employment for vulnerable African youth. Next year will mark ten years since we began serving refugee populations. We are continually reflecting on our lessons learned and how they can benefit the expansion of higher education for refugees. Yesterday, I shared on the genesis of our campus in Kiziba refugee camp in Western Rwanda, and how we repackaged our proven model to serve young refugees in an isolated setting.

The second lesson we learned is that our model would not be successful if refugees could not find employment and take care of themselves and their families. Unlocking formal employment for our refugee graduates in Rwanda required a dual focus on advocacy and our usual robust skills preparation.

This involved educating both employers and refugees on labor laws and processes. We found the most success when refugee students demonstrated their potential to employers before disclosing their status. Many alumni, both refugee and Rwandan, secure jobs at organizations where they began as interns. Internships are our most powerful tool to show employers that Kepler graduates possess the mindset and skills their companies need. Our Careers team encountered reluctance from employers to hire individuals with refugee status. However, in an internship setting, students can prove their competency before revealing their status. By the time a job offer is made, employers are unlikely to rescind it due to the candidate’s refugee status.

Educating refugee youth on their legal rights, including the right to work, fosters self-advocacy, independence, and initiative. Kepler regularly discusses with its refugee students how and when to disclose their status to potential employers, walking through possible scenarios and responses. In more challenging policy environments, we are expanding employment options to include remote opportunities and emphasize quality entrepreneurship training and support.

For us, employment for graduates with refugee status is critical because of the wider impact to both their refugees themselves and their families, as well as the community. Our Kiziba graduates were among the first refugees hired by humanitarian actors in Rwanda and are shaping a broader dialogue around employment and self-reliance for refugees. In all, nearly two-thirds of Kepler learners find social sector jobs that give back to their communities. In this way, Kepler’s is working to create decent employment for Africa’s young people, with a critical multiplier effect.

Take Alumnae Claude Safari for example. His professional journey from Kepler Kiziba student to an experienced manager shows the importance of internships in the transition from education to career. While studying for his bachelor’s degree, Claude completed two mostly remote internships that allowed him to practice new skills in a professional setting while earning additional income. After graduating, Claude took a third internship with a logistics and global trade company in the capital, Kigali. He quickly impressed his employers and was given the position of Tally Clerk and later promoted to Warehouse Manager at another company.

There are many stories like Claude’s. For us, employment outcomes remain our measurement of success. And we are working to do more in sharing our model with others. More on that tomorrow.

Editorial note: Nathalie Munyampenda is the Chief Executive Officer at Kepler