A Refugee Camp’s Teachers Get Some Welcome Global Support
KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—Six years ago, Ochwor Onak Okwier wasn’t sure if he was properly educating his students at this crowded refugee camp in northwestern Kenya. Today, two years after completing a teacher-training program, he’s more confident.
“I know my students will understand what I teach them,” said Okwier, who fled Ethiopia in 2004. “I know how to prepare schemes of work and interact with my students. I can see results. Our students here are now performing well in national exams.”
Okwier, 37, is among a new generation of refugees taking advantage of training programs that aim to help refugees educate their neighbors in camp schools. While the programs aren’t perfect—experts said there is plenty to do to improve refugee education—they’re offering hope to those who have often grown up in exile from their homelands.
“I’m now a good teacher,” said the father of five children, four of whom were born as refugees in Kenya.
Okwier receiving his training from Teachers for Teachers, a group formed in 2016 by Teachers College of Columbia University, in New York, in partnership with the United Nations refugee agency, the humanitarian group Finn Church Aid, and the Lutheran World Federation.
The group has helped train and mentor around 550 refugee primary-school teachers in the Kakuma camp. The program offers coaching to trainees and mobile mentoring with international teachers via Whatsapp and other mobile apps.
“The program helps keep otherwise isolated teachers connected to the world,” said Mary Mendenhall, an assistant professor of practice at Teachers College and project director for the Teachers for Teachers initiative in Kakuma. “They feel more valued as teachers, more authentic, less spontaneous, less tentative.”
The program was an outgrowth of a Teachers in Crisis Contexts working group that Mendenhall and others established in 2014 to produce learning materials to help refugees in Kakuma realize their human right to an education. The camp and a nearby settlement are home to more than 185,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Around 86,000 students attend schools in the camp or in Kenyan secondary schools.
“The fact that the camp has been there for 20 years and there was little or no training happening for those teachers just seemed ridiculous if not unethical and irresponsible,” said Mendenhall.
Helping qualified refugees become teachers—they usually must at least have a high-school diploma—was also a clear way not only to develop skills among refugees but create an environment in which refugee children are more likely to learn, she added.
“Many of those teachers are highly motivated, especially the ones who grew up in the camp, and know education is one thing those kids can take away from the experience,” she said.
Okwier agreed. “Life as a refugee is very hard,” he said. “You have no access to anything, but you have to live like other people. As refugee teachers, we are the only people who can understand the challenges of these students and what they are going through as refugees.”
Today, refugees comprise around 85 percent of the teachers in Kakuma schools, said Mendenhall. The rest are Kenyan citizens.
Around 73 percent of Kakuma children attend courses, said Ahmed Shale, an education specialist from Finn Church Aid. That’s better than the international average of 50 percent, he said. (See a related article, “Half of Refugee Children Are Not in School, Report Says.”)
Refugees in Kakuma speak several languages, including English, French, Arabic, Swahili and other local languages. Surprisingly, they also learn Sheng—a newly forming language that combines English and Swahili and is popular among camp youth.
But, of course, refugee teachers face plenty of challenges, Mendenhall and Shale said.
Less than a third of refugee teachers have gone through training, said Shale. Many students have experienced trauma that impedes their learning. Teacher turnover is high, students and educators often have no evidence of their academic record and money is a constant headache.
“There have been numerous challenges like lack of documentation, lack of continuity and funding,” said Shale.
Most important, the average teacher-student ratio is 1 to 103. “It’s unheard of,” said Mendenhall, who has seen classrooms with 300 students. “You had arms and legs literally hanging out the windows and doors.”
In most of the classrooms across the camp, children fight for available space, with as many as six sharing a desk. Some sit on the floor, others stand at the back and in the aisles. Okwier has 200 students in his classroom at Friends Primary School, for example.
Another problem is that, while Kukuma students can sit for Kenyan exams—technically, the camp schools are Kenyan government-run operations—refugees are banned from working legally in Kenya. Many go to Nairobi, Mombasa and other cities to work illegally.
At the same time, if refugees return home, they often don’t have credentials to work in their native countries.
Mendenhall said she and her colleagues are thinking about how to tackle the problem.
“There’s a lot of discussion more on the global level or even on the regional level of figuring out how to have cross-border agreements or regional agreements… conversations about what a more universal curriculum for refugees could look like,” said Mendenhall. “There is no answer to that question, but people are starting to think about that a little more broadly.”
In the meantime, Michael Kwoth, 24, who completed his secondary national examinations last year, said he was exploring one option that was available to high-school graduates. He wanted to train as a refugee teacher so he can give back to his community.
“I also want to train as a teacher so that I can teach and improve the lives of my fellow refugees,” said Kwoth, who fled the civil war in South Sudan in 2009 with his father. His mother was shot dead by militias on their way to the camp.
“I’m waiting for the next intake so that I can join and train as a teacher,” Kwoth said. “I want to see these children get a quality education.”