Refugee-led organizations can deliver education to refugee children during and post Covid-19

When I was six years old my family moved to Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda. For two decades, I called Kyangwali my village and home. Every day, for seven years, I walked kilometers to and from school before completing my primary school in Kyangwali. When I went to secondary school and university outside the refugee settlement, I was inspired and excited to go back to work with, and support, fellow refugee youth. In collaboration with my colleagues in the settlement, we established CIYOTA, an organization that promotes education and entrepreneurial leadership to enhance refugee resilience and self-sustainability.

The lived experience of young people in the refugee camps, who have worked to find real solutions to complex challenges, is the greatest tool that humanitarian organizations can capitalize on to achieve sustainable solutions and give hope to refugees. Despite being through a lot and having little or nothing to live on, refugee youth around the world have created a productive life by establishing schools and businesses that have increased access to education, enhanced sustainable livelihood in their communities, and contributed to the economy of the host countries. As we celebrate refugees’ resilience this June, I draw from my own experience of being on the move for two decades to encourage humanitarian and business organizations to engage, consult, and support refugee youth. They are the most innovative young people and are best placed to solve generational issues facing long term refugees.

(TOP: Joseph Munyambanza).

For the past 15 years, CIYOTA has employed a holistic community development model to identify and address the key challenges affecting vulnerable children and youth. CIYOTA set up innovative, high-quality primary through secondary school programs in resource-constrained contexts; and used applied social leadership and entrepreneurship to address local problems. Today, CIYOTA programs under the leadership of Nziyonvira Ntakamaze, a refugee and alumni of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, are educating over 2,000 refugee children, including 800 children receiving education from CIYOTA’s primary school in the heart of Kyangwali refugee settlement. CIYOTA leaders have worked with the community to increase their sense of ownership for social cohesion, violence reduction, and sustainable development.

CIYOTA is just one example of what refugee youth around the world are doing. In Kyangwali refugee settlement alone, there are six other primary schools founded and run by refugees. These schools together are educating about 5,000 children without any external donations. Besides producing the most competitive children in the national exams, these schools work with parents and guardians in the refugee camp to provide breakfast and lunch to learners. For example, Benjamin Nzabarinda a high school graduate is leading CODA Primary School with over 450 children. Khalid Daniel runs Planning For Tomorrow (P4T) Primary School which is educating 480. In Kyaka II Refugee Settlement, also in Uganda, James Ntakiruta and Vanessa Ishimwe, two Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program and Anzisha alumni living in the settlement, run YIDA early learning centers where they support about 700 children.

When COVID-19 caused the closure of schools around Uganda, the refugee-led school leaders came together to re-imagine how to safely continue to deliver education to learners who have no access to radios or technology they needed to learn. By working with Parents’ Teachers Associations to provide mentorship and guidance to secondary school students, by providing upper primary school lessons using a combination of hand-written notes, recorded WhatsApp audios and videos, and by enabling children to access Ministry of Education online lessons, refugee-led organizations have continued to show their adaptive and resilient ways to own solutions to their challenges. Youth have volunteered to give families accurate information on COVD-19 and have reached out to refugees who were resettled to developed countries to request contributions of food, soap, and other basic support for the most vulnerable members of the community.

Over the past few weeks, I participated in brainstorming sessions with these young entrepreneurial educators to uncover ideas that will enable continued learning and catch up after COVID-19. The team in Kyangwali refugee settlement plans to scale their learning adaptations and support other organizations in the community to make sure the 25,000 school children do not dropout due to the current crisis. To achieve this, the team plans to:

  • Develop a Kyangwali Education Task Force, comprised of head teachers, academic heads for refugee schools and community leaders to oversee education content preparation and delivery, while ensuring that health guidelines on COVID-19 are observed.
  • Recruit and train a movement of Community Educators and Volunteers; teachers, refugee high school and college graduates to develop lessons and deliver homeschooling at the village level to reach all children in partnership with parents and guardians.
  • Scheduled Communal Story Telling for lower primary school learners guided by the curriculum and considers the context in the refugee camps.
  • Work with refugee tech-scholars to create an e-Learning Platform; a smaller tech enabled school model that works in the context of refugee learners.

The lived experiences and continued search for new solutions is a great opportunity for meaningful partnership with refugees. It is important to recognize that the tradition of supporting refugees without involving or consulting them has cost humanitarian organizations resources and time without giving expected results. This approach perpetuates the narrative that refugees are burdens to the host communities and the world. Humanitarian organizations, private sector and governments should think of each one of the 70.8 million forcefully displaced people around the world as important thought partners. Imagine the incredible action that could be driven by over 70 million problem-solvers working and thinking together.

As we celebrate refugees’ resilience, let us approach our work with humility, respect, and with listening. Then, encourage and invest in internally conceived innovative solutions to support access to quality education, create employment, and address other pressing issues that threaten refugee communities’ sustainability.

Joseph Munyambanza fled from his home country of DRC to Uganda at the age of six. At the age of 14, Joseph was one of four young leaders who established COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa (CIYOTA). He graduated from the African Leadership Academy in 2010 and earned a B. A in Biochemistry from Westminster College, USA, as a Mastercard Foundation Scholar in 2015. He served as an advisor on international education to the UN Secretary General, and Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy on Global Education. He is a Global Citizen Award winner of 2013 and is the force behind a number of initiatives in innovative education to empower young leaders in the Congo and Uganda.


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