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Jesuit Refugee Service Eastern Africa Regional Director Fr. Endashaw Debrework S.J. speaks at Regis University in Denver, Colo., September 30, 2015. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Washington, D.C.) October 21, 2015 — The sprawling, massive Kakuma refugee camp in rural northwestern Kenya at first glance doesn’t appear to be a likely setting for innovative schooling initiatives. Despite the daily challenges of the local environment, Jesuit Refugee Service is helping conduct cutting edge programs aimed at bringing higher education to the camp.

A small but growing project by JRS and Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins is helping young adults at Kakuma take online courses — an endeavor they hope will help propel them to a fuller life outside the camp. 

Speaking at universities during a recent visit to the U.S., JRS Eastern Africa Regional Director Fr. Endashaw Debrework S.J. says there is a tremendous appetite for education among Kakuma’s more than 185,000 residents. 

“Refugees are like me and you — if they have any chance of going to school, they can perform excellently,” said Fr. Endashaw during a presentation Sept. 30 at Regis University in Denver. “They are not getting that chance. But JRS and JCHEM facilitated this chance.”

The project, which began as a pilot program in 2010 at Kakuma, aims to offer a sustainable, scalable, transferrable model to ensure those who live at the margins have access to higher education. Refugees can earn diplomas in liberal studies from Regis, a Jesuit institution, with concentrations in either business or education, after studying online for three years.  

While at least 200 refugees annually apply for the program, space has been capped at 35 students due to a lack of resources and facilities. Fr. Endashaw is hopeful capacity can soon be doubled to 70 students. 

 “The only thing we can offer to our brothers and sisters is really education, be it nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary education,” said Fr. Endashaw during an Oct. 7 presentation at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “They are brilliant, they are intelligent, they have talent. What is missing? Opportunity.”

“They are hungry; not for food really, but for knowledge.” 

Two years ago, JRS – in partnership with JC:HEM and the Lutheran World Federation – also began primary education teacher training at the camp. A hundred students were admitted into the program this year, double the previous year. 

A Peace Studies and Inter-religious Dialogue class was added to the curriculum in 2014, and has met with great success.

The first graduating class received their diplomas in 2013 during a colorful and emotional ceremony that included many tears of joy. The third class graduated in September.

“Sometimes they cry when they get that diploma, these young people, because they never thought of getting something from that (Kenyan) desert,” Fr. Endashaw said in Denver. 

Fr. Endashaw noted providing educational options for Kakuma’s residents, many who have lived at the camp their entire lives, is critical to boosting their self-esteem and helping shed false stereotypes about refugees. 

“Refugees are seen by some like criminals,” he said.  “JRS and JC:HEM made it possible for these brothers and sisters (of ours) to acquire something… We restored, in this way, their dignity and their hope.

“The work of JRS and JC:HEM is to restore humanity. We are all human beings. We share that common humanity – whether we are in America, Africa, (or) Asia.”

You can help support the JRS education programs at Kakuma by making a secure online donation today.

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