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Kids of Kakuma

Students at Kakuma refugee camp walk home from school. JAIME JOYCE FOR TIME FOR KIDS

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.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME Kakuma camp (pictured) and Kalobeyei settlement are home to nearly 186,000 refugees.


“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 persecution MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/GETTY treatment that is unfair or cruel, especially due to someone's race, religion, or political beliefs (noun) Malala Yousafzai fled persecution in her home country of Pakistan. 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 porridge SEAN JUSTICE/GETTY a soft food made by cooking grains in milk or water until thick (noun) Darryl likes to eat porridge for breakfast. from red plastic mugs. A worker stands over a crackling fire and a bubbling pot of beans and maize maize THODSAPOL THONGDEEKHIEO—EYEEM/GETTY corn (noun) We grow maize on our farm. githeri. It’s lunch for Mogadishu’s 21 teachers.


ALL TOGETHER In Kakuma, it is common for students of many ages to learn together in a single classroom.


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.

Facing Challenges

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.

ON ASSIGNMENT TFK’s Jaime Joyce talks with Rachel Akol Dau, 17, a refugee from South Sudan. “I want to be a journalist,” Rachel says.


EYES ON THE BOARD There are 21 primary schools at Kakuma refugee camp. Bhar-El-Naam, shown here, is one of two for just girls.


“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.”

EDUCATING GIRLS Jessica Deng, 21, was born and raised in Kakuma. Now she teaches math at Bhar-El-Naam.


Limited Resources

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.

TAKE A DRINK Children at Kalobeyei Friends School take a water break. The school has 5,815 students. They don't have desks. They sit on mats on dirt floors.


HOMEMADE FUN A child holds a clay toy.


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 haven SEBASTIAN ARNING—EYEEM/GETTY a safe place (noun) The national park is a safe haven for deer, because hunting is illegal there. ,” 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 recite HILL STREET STUDIOS/GETTY to repeat from memory or read out loud for an audience (verb) Every morning, my class recites the pledge of allegiance. 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 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

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.

Assessment: Click here for a printable quiz. Teacher subscribers can find the answer key in this week's Teacher's Guide.

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.

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