Dreaming Somewhere: Empowering Refugees Through Education
“Good morning, class. It is my pleasure to be here, and I hope you are fine.”
It was a blessed early morning in 2015 when I received a call from the headmaster at Gihembe Secondary School. The Gihembe refugee camp was built in northern Rwanda in 1997 following the Mudende Massacre in western Rwanda, where hundreds of Tutsi refugees were assaulted and killed by armed groups who had crossed the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo in August and December. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rwanda, 99% of refugees currently at Gihembe are survivors of the Mudende Massacre.
“Good morning, visitor,” came the replies that were as many as the stars in the night sky. I was about to embark on a beautiful career, full of opportunities and challenges. Did you know it was like climbing Kilimanjaro Mountain on foot?
Gihembe Primary and Secondary schools have been attended by large numbers of children and young people since they first left the Democratic Republic of Congo and became refugees. In addition to lacking necessary materials and educational tools, the school’s foundations were bad, with many rooms built from mud and old iron sheets that could not shield students from unwanted sunlight and rain. (You would often find four students sharing a desk, or classes taking place on the bare ground!) Although the students were smartly dressed, in their navy and sky-blue uniforms, the floors they stood on would be covered in dust, and sometimes even used as toilets by passing cowboys.
The education of refugee students is linked with countless problems. When the children returned home after school, they would often be met by a lack of food or firewood. Those new to the area were likely to experience psychological stress over having to start life from scratch. Furthermore, a number of students, especially teenagers, would drop out to seek work in order to support their families. The journey of a refugee is difficult and long, and cannot be easily understood by everyone. Only those who are refugees can testify to this better than anyone else.
I knew what it was like to be a student at Gihembe, because I was in the very same position 23 years ago. I never expected then that I would someday become a teacher there. But as the years went on, I found myself increasingly inspired by those who had taught me, and how committed they were to helping our community despite only being paid a small salary.
But it was my first time teaching that morning, and since I hadn’t yet gotten used to standing in front of so many students, with their lit-up eyes, I was shivering like a person confronting the winter wind.
People may ask why it was important that I introduced myself at the start of each class. Let us borrow a leaf from a 2007 study by Allday and Pakurar, which shows that greeting students at the door can increase academic engagement by 20 percentage points, and decrease disruptive behaviour by 9 percentage points. As teachers whose jobs are to seize the attention and minds of young people, a warm welcome can bring about motivation, engagement — and for refugee students especially — positivity. Although it wasn’t easy for me to get integrated, the students were interactive, cheerful and brave as lions in their thirst for knowledge. In their beautiful blue uniforms, seated on benches in front of me, they always smelt like lily of the valley. And they were funny, too! (Even if it meant receiving occasional punishments for miming teachers and the way they taught in class.)
I ended up staying for four years at Gihembe’s primary and secondary schools, teaching English language and literature. Being there was like stepping out of the dark and into the light. My co-workers were dedicated teachers who weathered the challenges and poor conditions all for the sake of their students. We would joke and share whatever we had — even if it was just milk and tea at the nearest canteen over breaktime. There was also an annual teachers’ trip to Rwandan tourist attractions like Akagera National Park, where we would bond and reflect on our experiences at the school over the past year. Sharing — whether it was food or experiences — energised us morally and physically. Their brilliant company often made me forget the harsh situations we were all in. Despite all the hardships of Gihembe Refugee Camp, education was our form of resistance. My students taught me that wherever in the world you are, as long as there exists a situation you could learn from, and as long as you are committed to what you are looking for, you can achieve it. I also learned that refugees can do anything when they are given opportunities like others. We would not be confined by grief. We would always find a way to escape a reality that was not friendly to us.
On a beautiful evening in April 2019, I received another blessed call. This time, a voice on the phone informed me that I had won a scholarship to the University of Southern New Hampshire’s Kepler Program, where refugees are given opportunities to receive higher education and work towards US-accredited university degrees. “Oh my God!” was my first reaction to the news. Then the faces of my students and co-workers flashed through my mind.
Over the next four days, I had the difficult task of informing everyone at school about my impending departure. In our culture, it is customary to share food and drink when bidding farewell to someone — just like how we’d always done in the past. My co-workers took me to a restaurant where we ate and drank and laughed over a delicious meal, gave heartfelt speeches, and celebrated what was left of our time together. I knew then that I wanted to keep helping my community through education. I hope to someday form an organisation where Gihembe’s alumni, students, and teachers can work together to improve the quality of education among young refugees, and have our students compete alongside the country’s most excellent schools.
The children were expecting their usual lessons when I walked into their classroom for the last time. “It has been an amazing opportunity and honour to teach you,” I began. “But now I get to be a student again, just like you.” Some of them exchanged surprised looks. Others stared back at me with grief etched onto their faces. “I wish for you to stay focused on your studies,” I continued. “Because this will be your bridge to a better future.”
There was more I wanted to tell them. I wanted them to know that no matter how hard life gets, they can always achieve something great if they stay true to the course. As refugees, being born into difficult situations means we have to dream of better things in order to seek options, and work ourselves out of the cage of our circumstances.
Born nowhere, live nowhere, but dream somewhere.
But the one thing I couldn’t bring myself to say was ‘goodbye’. Instead, I looked at the many faces in front of me and smiled. “Good morning, class. It is my pleasure to be here, and I hope you are fine.”
Claude Kaberuka is a student at the University of Southern New Hampshire. He is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in Healthcare Management, with a concentration in Global Perspectives.