Changing the Narrative on Refugee Education One Graduate at a Time

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By Chrystina Russell and Nina Weaver, Photo: Alex Buisse

Over the last decade, the refugee crisis has dramatically accelerated with 65.3 million people displaced worldwide. But refugees are not the hopeless faces often featured on the news. They are hardworking, motivated, and talented people who want the world to know they are smart, able, and can pursue higher education if given the opportunity.

"Refugees are like other people - they have knowledge and they have the ability to pursue higher education," said Eugenie Manirafasha, a student living in Kiziba Refugee Camp, who graduated with her associate degree from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) on June 11. "Even though there are different challenges living in a refugee camp, we have the ability to handle them, and now we are getting skills to plan a bright future, not to always be refugees without any hope."

Earlier this month, Eugenie and her 15 classmates were the first students in the world to complete U.S.-accredited associate degrees while living in a refugee camp. The graduates are part of a pilot program from SNHU in partnership with Kepler, a local NGO. Together, the two organizations collaborate to serve one of the most under-resourced refugee populations living in the Kiziba Refugee Camp in Western Rwanda, nearly 7,000 miles away from SNHU's campus in Manchester, N.H.

Most of the SNHU students, as well as the others in the camp, have lived there for nearly 20 years, after they fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996. They've had to overcome unimaginable obstacles and have faced some of the world's most dangerous circumstances, but never lost sight of their dream: To earn a college degree.

At SNHU, we believe that access to high-quality higher education is a fundamental human right. But today, as we celebrate our newest graduates on World Refugee Day, we are reminded that higher education continues to be out of reach for millions of refugees around the globe.

Evidence has shown the power of education to build transferable skills, improve quality of life and mental health, and expand economic opportunities. Not only does education directly mitigate the social and economic ramifications of displacement, it also empowers refugees to engage with their communities and build a better life for themselves and their families.

Despite demands from experts, advocates, and refugees themselves, there has been little success in providing education beyond the secondary level to displaced populations. This higher education gap for displaced populations also fuels global inequality; with the global average for access to higher education at 34 percent, compared to 1 percent for refugees.

Without opportunities, college-aged youth are left hopeless, leaving them vulnerable to radicalization or criminal recruitment. And without credentials and skills, displaced youth remain ill-prepared to take on leadership roles which could transform their own lives and their communities' future.

Far too often, the narratives around refugee education are constrained by the perception that refugees have limited employability, few skill, and lack motivation, but the SNHU students in the Kiziba Refugee Camp prove otherwise. Many are academically gifted, conscientious and well prepared for the world of work. SNHU's model pushes the boundaries of what people believe refugees can do, and gives them the opportunity to succeed.

"We hope that our success will open the chance to other people who live the same life like we do," said SNHU graduate Sadiki Bamperineza, who now works for a tech start-up company, Safe Motos, designing a digital platform and curriculum content for motorcycle drivers.

Other graduates, such as Alicia Mukerete, are using their degrees to develop corporate social media marketing campaigns, as well as working with national NGOs to improve agriculture and health in Rwanda.

All 16 students in the cohort are now moving on to pursue their bachelor's degrees with SNHU and Kepler. The students that graduated on June 11 are pioneers, who are demonstrating the importance of higher education for displaced populations, and continue to show the world that they can succeed if given the chance.

Kevin Niragire, another student in the cohort said when asked what he wants the world to know about Refugee college students, "We want to show the world we can."