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In a Refugee Camp, Classrooms Open Up to Somali Girls

This article is one of two focusing on education issues for Somali refugees in Kenya.

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—“Who said girls from Somalia cannot go to school and achieve their dreams?”

Hani Abdalla, a student here who is determined to become a lawyer, posed that question as she addressed hundreds of other young female Somali students on the importance of educating girls.

“I want to be among the first Somali female students to become a lawyer in Dadaab camp,” said Abdalla, 20, in a speech in the United Nations-run compound that houses around 240,000 people. “We have the potential to become what we want in life if we work hard in school.”

A student in Grade 10 at the Waberi secondary school in the camp in northern Kenya, Abdalla is among thousands of Somali female students here who are resisting traditions like focusing on domestic chores and early forced marriage to embrace education.

In traditional Somali culture, girls stay at home, receive religious rather than secular education, then marry early and look after the household as their men serve as breadwinners, said an official with the Lutheran World Federation, a charitable organization that is in charge of education at Dadaab.

“Girls drop out earlier than boys because early marriage is an issue, and girls are also expected to help at home with domestic chores,” said Lennart Hernander, the federation’s representative in Kenya.

But in the camp, formerly the largest in the world until Kenya started pressuring Somalis to go back home a few years ago, a growing trend of allowing more young women to attend school illustrates how a generation of Somalis has grown up in a separate world from that of their parents.

“Girls are now realizing that education is a key to success,” said Abdinajib Sheikh, a teacher at the Juba primary school in the camp. “They cannot afford to leave it for only men.”

Somali students stand with Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai at the Dadaab Refugee Camp.

Sheikh conceded that free meals were part of the incentive for the young female students who are coming to school, but he added: “I think they have been motivated by other girls who have excelled well in exams and gotten scholarship to study abroad. We are going to experience more enrollments of girls.”

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have sought refuge in Dadaab since their nation collapsed into anarchy following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre in 1991.

Girls in the camp have access to primary and secondary schools and limited postsecondary education—opportunities that their mothers could only dream of back home. When the camp was established in 1991, girls made up only 5 percent of the total number of young people in education in Dadaab, according to the Lutheran World Federation. Today, female students account for almost 40 percent of those in school.

“We have done many awareness and sensitizations and enrollment is rather good,” said Hernander. “We have done ‘girls-friendly’ spaces in schools and we hope to do some also in other schools in 2018. Girls-friendly spaces help girls to stay in school, and play and be protected.”

Hernander said he hoped the schooling would pay dividends in the future, no matter where the girls lived.

“Education is lifesaving,” he said. “It is crucial for both the protection and healthy development of girls and boys affected by crises. It can rebuild their lives, restore their sense of normalcy and safety, and provide them with important life skills. It helps children to be self-sufficient, to be heard, and to have more influence on issues that affect them. It is also one of the best tools to invest in their long-term future, and in the peace, stability and economic growth of their countries.”

More girls like Jamilah Aden, 17, are seeking education away from home, knowing it offers the best opportunity for succeeding in life.

Aden fled Somalia’s civil war with her mother in 2006.

“When I arrived at the camp, my mother told me to stay home and not attend school,” she said. “My mother told me education was meant for men, as they were the only people who could complete school without getting pregnant.”

Somali girls attend classes at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

But Aden, who now attends the Juba primary school in Dagahaley Camp—a section of Dadaab—said she was encouraged by Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate and an advocate for girls’ education who visited Dadaab last year. Taliban terrorists in Pakistan attempted to kill Yousafzai in 2012 because of her advocacy. She is now based in Britain and started studying at the University of Oxford this fall.

“I was really encouraged by Malala’s story,” Aden said. “I cried when she told us her story, and discovered that I can also achieve my dream by working hard in school. I hope that one day I will finish school and help my family.”

Some Somali parents have also changed with time and are now allowing and encouraging their girls to go to school.

“A child is a child, be it a boy or girl,” said Maalim Haji, who has two of his three daughters attending the Dagahaley secondary school. “I want them to work hard and excel in their studies so that they can help me in future. I love my daughters and I cannot fail to take them to school.”

But challenges still need to be addressed to ensure that all girls and boys at the camp can attend school, aid workers say. Less than 50 percent of the camp’s young people are enrolled in a school. There is not enough space for all children to attend school if everyone showed up, either.

“The main challenges are the lack of everything: lack of classrooms, lack of teachers, lack of trained teachers, lack of desks, books and teaching material,” Hernander said. “Basically, it comes down to money. I very seldom say that what we need is money, as I always try to emphasize that we can do more, better with what we have.”

For some, like Abdalla, the chance to pursue an education is both an opportunity and a responsibility.

“I want to be a role model for other girls by achieving my dream,” she said. “I want to show Somali girls that they can also achieve it through education.”


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