Who Got a University?

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By Rowan Wolf

(Picture of Dadaab from the Norwegian Refugee Council.)

I would like to draw people’s attention to an article at the Christian Science Monitor, In world first, biggest refugee camp gets university . There are some stunning (to me) components of this report. First being that Dadaab Refuge “Camp” outside of Nairobi, Kenya has a population of 500,000 people. Can half a million people even be considered a “camp” other than by legal definition. The estimated 2010 population of Nairobi was 3,240,155. So the camp is close to 1/6th the size of Nairobi itself. This makes Dadaab is roughly the size of the following cities: Grenoble, France; Linz Austria; and Malatya, Turkey.
It is stunning to just look at the number and size of refugee camps around the world. MillionsAware.org has a very nice interactive map if you are interested. Afghanistan looks like it has more camps than cities. Sri Lanka as well disappears under the refugee camp bubbles. Armenia and Azerbaijan have their fair share. There is a scattering of camps across Eastern Europe. Central America has camps as do several countries in South America. The only refugee camps in North America are in Mexico. Australia and most of Western Europe have also been “spared” camps. Yes a very interesting map indeed.

The next interesting thing is the placement of a university in Nairobi to meet the needs of both the refugee camps and of Kenya. Kenyatta University partnered with Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) to open the university. I was kind of taken aback that there was even such an organization – or need for one. However, it makes sense when you start thinking about how long some of these “camps” have existed. That is 20 plus years in the case of Dadaab (and there are still refugees leaving Somalia).  According to the BHER site information on the project, the aim will to be improve teacher education and to provide gender equitable training to address the special barriers to women in the camps.  Education is both onsite and online, and modular so that students gain certificates along the way leading to a degree.

This latter (stackable accomplishment approach) would be an interesting idea for higher education in the U.S. to address the needs of students. Perhaps it would offer a learning path that follows a occupational path if that was desired, or providing access to broad skill and educational training to increase transferability. It is a creative idea.

The university is open to Kenyans as well as to refugees in the camps and so has the enthusiastic buy-in of Kenyan authorities. The first students will start classes in January 2013.

There has been heavy control of refugees in the camps with the impositions of passes to enable movement both inside and particularly outside the camp. The passes will be eased for those attending the university.

Unfortunately, this does not resolve the problem of the camps which while “temporary” in term of construction and approach, have become ongoing features to the point of becoming a “city” if we judged by endurance and population. I applaud this effort on the part of aid agencies, the Kenyan government, Kenyatta University and BHER, to improve the qualifications of teachers, provide equitable education. This may provide an education path for many, which may lead to stability and hopefully increased opportunity for all the students and those they teach.


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