Kids of Kakuma
April 13, 2018
KAKUMA, Kenya — Wild animals roamed at night. But Rose Peter and the 19 other children she was with still slept outside. In the daylight, they walked. “One week,” Rose tells me when I ask how long the trip took. She says they set off alone from South Sudan to Kenya. (Their parents came later.) That was in 2014. Since then, Rose has lived at Kakuma refugee camp.
“There was a war in my country,” Rose says through a translator. In fact, civil war still rages in South Sudan. We are standing near a group of mud-walled homes. “I am hoping that after I finish school, my life will be changed completely,” Rose says.
Rose, 18, is a refugee. A refugee is a person who has fled his or her country due to war. A refugee may flee because of fear of persecution because of race, religion, or nationality. Political opinion or membership in certain social groups can also play a role. A 1951 United Nations agreement defines the term refugee. It also lays out refugees’ rights. These include children’s right to education.
In March, I traveled to Kakuma with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. I wanted to learn what it’s like for refugee kids to live in and go to school at the camp. Refugees stay at the Kakuma Reception Center when they first arrive. There, I met 15-year-old Jackson. He’d come from South Sudan without family. At a garden, Alice, 11, showed off her bean plants. At the Furaha Center, kids played on swings. In Kenya’s Kiswahili language, furaha means “happiness.” Most of my time, however, was spent with kids in schools.
In the Classroom
At Mogadishu Primary School, children in blue-and-white checked uniforms crowd a dirt courtyard ringed by classrooms. A girl drags a loop of red fabric. It’s used in a rope-jumping game. Little kids sip porridge from red plastic mugs. A worker stands over a crackling fire and a bubbling pot of beans and maize —githeri. It’s lunch for Mogadishu’s 21 teachers.
Head teacher Pascal Lukosi greets me in the office. “Enrollment is moving higher and higher,” he says. On this day, the school has 2,815 students. I quickly do the math: one teacher for every 134 students. Congestion is common in Kakuma schools. On average, there is one teacher for every 100 students.
It’s also common to find students of many ages in a single classroom. Typically, primary school students are 6 to 13 years old. “[But] because of South Sudan being war-torn, they don’t go to school at the proper age” in their home country, Lukosi says. Kids walk to school. For some, the trip takes more than an hour each way.
Kakuma has 21 primary schools. Bhar-El-Naam is one of two for just girls. In the afternoon, I meet with five students around a narrow wooden desk. I ask what they usually do after class.
“I fetch water and wash utensils and clothes,” says Njema Nadai Ben, 12. Homes do not have running water, so refugees walk to one of the camp’s 18 boreholes, or wells, to fill up.
What about homework? “We don’t have lights to read at night,” explains Rachel Akol Dau, 17. But Rachel and other kids find a way to study. “I light firewood,” she says. “That gives me light.” She adds, “I want to change the future of my family.”
Jessica Deng, 21, teaches math at Bhar-El-Naam. She is also a former student, having been born and raised in Kakuma. “Nothing is simple in this camp,” she says. Especially for girls. “Some are told, ‘Don’t go to school.’ Others are told, ‘Do this [chore] before you go to school.’” And yet, “They come to school,” Deng says. “They are so enthusiastic.”
Kakuma camp opened in 1992. It covers six square miles in remote northwestern Kenya. (See map on page 5.) Kalobeyei settlement opened nearby in 2016. Together, they’re home to nearly 186,000 people from 19 countries. These include South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Almost 60% are children.
Mohamud Hure is a U.N. education officer in Kenya. “Refugees consider education to be a high priority,” he says. But resources are “very limited.”
At Kalobeyi Friends School, there are 37 teachers and nearly 6,000 learners. They cram shoulder to shoulder into temporary classrooms built of sheet metal and wire. “We are just sitting on dirt” on a mat, student Jonathan Kalo Ndoyan, 17, tells me. “When the rains come, we have no place to sit.”
Textbooks are in short supply. At Kalobeyei Friends, 18 students share one book.
Toward the Future
Morneau Shepell Secondary School for Girls is one of six secondary schools in Kakuma and Kalobeyei. A company in Canada funds it. Here, 352 students have 17 teachers. “The school is there to give [the girls] a safe haven ,” says Hure.
In one classroom, students tell visitors what they want to be when they grow up. Teacher, lawyer, engineer, and pilot are popular professions.
Nawadhir Nasradin, 16, wants to be a poet. After the bell rings, she recites one of her works. It ends with these words: “Education empowers.”
It is my last day in Kakuma. I picture Rose, the girl I met on my first day. She wants to be a doctor. She dreams of returning to a peaceful South Sudan. This year, she will take the Kenyan national exam required to graduate from primary school. I asked Rose which school she attends. It’s called Hope.
How You Can Help
Of the world’s nearly 22.5 million refugees, more than half are under the age of 18. UNICEF works to protect children’s rights, including access to education.
UNICEF education kits (pictured, above, in use at Kalobeyei Friends School, in Kenya) are one way to do this. They contain basic school supplies, including books, pencils, scissors, and wooden blocks for counting.
“Whenever they come in contact with these kits, they are very happy,” says Songot Paul, head teacher of Kalobeyei Friends School. “They are motivated to learn even more.”
Would you like to help refugee students? Go to unicefusa.org/tfk to donate. A little can go a long way: $14 is enough for a set of 40 notebooks, 40 slates, and 80 pencils. You can also help by taking part in UNICEF’s Kid Power program. Visit unicefkidpower.org.
Jaime Joyce is executive editor at TIME for Kids. She traveled to Kenya to report this story. It is made possible through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified 2,815 as the number of teachers at Mogadishu Primary School. The story has been corrected to note 2,815 as the number of students.