For the past several days I have been visiting two refugee camps in Kenya: Dadaab in the south east and Kakuma in the north west of the country.
The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) has a long-established program of bringing refugees to study in Canada and we receive about 35 students each year from these camps. The Student Refugee Program is remarkable for several reasons: started by students after the World War I bringing refugees to Canada, there have been several specific initiatives to bring people to Canada after crises have flared up in parts of the world.
There are some very challenging situations in Africa in the moment with a number of countries torn by strife and civil war and a substantial number of refugees flying some kind of atrocities – these are the real victims of war and their plight is real and very tragic. But somehow, through this misery and sadness, the human spirit shines through and the actions of individuals and groups provides a shining example of dignity and commitment that is an inspiration to us all.
There are about 170,000 refugees in Dadaab - the majority are Somali and 70,000 inhabitants in Kakuma - the majority are Sudanese. The personal stories of the people are harrowing but their determination to dream and to forge a better life is inspiring.
With nothing to bequeath to their children in a material sense, many of the families support education for their children and the only hope for escape. For many of the children they have lived in the camps for most, if not all of their lives, and for many (particularly the women) there are social and cultural barriers that have to be overcome to pursue education and the thought of a new life elsewhere.
The Student Refugee Program is a masterful web of connections and partners. Students at universities and colleges across Canada raise money every year to support the scholarships that the refugees are awarded. They raise more than $1 million dollars each year. WUSC has an important partner in the camps – the Windle Trust – which not only works tireless to help the students prepare, is involved in their selection but is also involved in helping them with other agencies prepare for coming to Canada. Just think, for a moment, of all the pieces of information that you will have to know to come and adjust to living in Canada when all you have known is a shack as a home, a shed with wooden desks as a classroom, dust instead of snow, electricity only in the school room (and that is only light), no light after the sun goes down, no running water in the home, and no form of public transport. Not only do they have to learn in schools where there is one textbook between 30 or even 40 people and pass examinations to the level that would allow them entry to a Canadian university or college, but they have to learn every piece of our day-to-day lives – the things we take for granted. How, for example, do you use a flush toilet, turn on taps, operate a stove, a fridge, a microwave? How do you use public transport, navigate automatic doors, shop, do laundry indoors? How do you chose where to walk freely, study when you like, decided whether or not to go to school or have coffee? The list goes on.
Inside the camps, WUSC’s partners – particularly the Windle Trust are populated with remarkable people who devote their lives to serving the refugees and helping them with the basic forms of communication through to the end of secondary school. They help give them the tools to be able to negotiate, work through issues of conflict and gender bias and fundamentally allow these people to maintain a dignity that is truly impressive in the face of adversity and, above all, give them hope of a brighter future.
I leave the camps quite changed. Fundamentally, I have always believed in the goodness of people but here I have been taught a lesson in absolute humility and in the true meaning of the indomitable spirit of the human mind. There is no doubt that those of us who are fortunate to have lived our lives where conflict does not exist need to do more to extend a hand to those who, through no fault of their own, are facing appalling conditions.