In these June days in the Northern hemisphere students are sitting exams. Today, June 9th, Irish students will file into examination halls to begin a grueling three-week marathon of examinations to earn their graduating secondary-school qualification, the Leaving Certificate. The future of many students depend on the grades they achieve. High grades will admit them to desirable courses in the top college; sucess will lead to high-income future careers. For all Irish Leaving Certificate, it is a rite of passage whose iconic status has been guaranteed by generations of anecdotal folklore.
But spare a thought for students in refugee camps world-wide who share a similar passion for life and for a fulfilling personal future. These students may or may not have been lucky enough to have had access to schooling. For many, their schooling will have been interrupted by war, famine, disease, police brutality, racism and the sheer hardship of refugee journeys. Some students – themselves newcomers to Ireland – who sit their exams this morning will have known such horrors in their young life’s journey.
Reading Ben Rawlence’s book, City of Thorns, I came across a story that illustrates the suffering, ambition, and courage of these young students.
In 1992 the first flood of refugees from Somalia arrived in the North Eastern region of Kenya, making their way to the UN camp at Dadaab, today the largest refugee camp in the world. Rukia, a Somali woman, walked for ten days with an infant girl, Kheyro, on her back. In 2012, Ruykia and Kheyro are still in the Dadaab camp. That was the year Western aid workers were kidnapped by Al-Shabaab. In response to the kidnap, the UN and the NGOs retreated to their compounds. The refugees were urged to fend for themselves.
That same year Kheyro was sitting her Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). She had been lucky and clever enough to have been among the 500 students who had gained a scholarship to study in the one secondary school operating in the camp. Her mother had spent grueling hot days out in the scrubland beyond the camp gathering firewood that could be sold to pay for a school uniform (€15) and for books. Wood sold at €0.10 per load. Some of the money was needed to purchase two batteries for a torch so that Kheyro could study at night. Sometimes the family went without food to pay for school essentials.
Only Two Ways Out
Kheyro was fired with ambition. She knew, as did everyone else in the camp, that there are only two ways out of the camp: through a UN resettlement programme or through academic scholarships provided by the Canadian government for 20 students each year who achieve the highest grades. For the rest, there is the prospect of a paid job with a UN agency, and, perhaps, eventually resettlement or Kenyan citizenship.
Such was the determination of Kheyro and some of her friends to succeed that in their final examination year they pooled money to pay €6 a month each for the cost of renting a house in the camp where they could study together. Here they studied in the evenings by the light of two naked light bulbs between forty-three students. On achieving success in the KCSE depended Kheyro’s future and that of her family.
Insecurity and Corruption
Beyond the hut where they studied the security situation continued to deteriorate. The exams had started. Kenyan police were on edge and had already begun to treat all refugees in the camp, especially newcomers, as if they were members of Al-Shabaab. Young people were rounded up and beaten. Shacks were over-turned and destroyed. Shops in the camp (we’re talking tin-hut affairs selling basic items) were set ablaze by the police and the tin cash boxes robbed.
That year, 2012, in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, 411,783 candidates were sitting the KCSE. Only one-quarter were girls. Kheyro was up against it. It was not, and could not be, a level playing field. Teachers, examination officials, invidulators could all be bribed. It is alleged that 1.3 million Kenyan shillings (€11,300) changed hands that year in bribes to education officials. Kheyro had nothing on her side except determination, courage and self-belief.
Two days after the exams started, a car carryng exam materials was attacked at a border post with Somalia a few miles from the camp. Al-Shabaan, like their Islamist co-affiliates in Nigeria, Boko-Haram, had quickly understood that the battle against the West could be cheaply ramped up by targetting education facilities. Local radio broadcasted the daily attacks. Luckily, the Kenyan education authorities held their nerve until the exams finished. The following day the first massive IED bomb exploded in the camp.
Kheyro was successful in her examinations. Today, she works as a professional with Handicap International in Kenya and is providing for her family.
Perhaps some Irish students, and others, who are sitting exams in these days may reflect on the challenges facing young people in other parts of the world.