Varsity education offers refugee students fresh hope for the future

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An instructor at Kepler Kiziba helps the students with computer work. (Teddy Kamanzi)

"Imagine completing secondary education and the road stops there. You’re confined to spending your days sitting at home, loitering around the refugee camp because there’s no stable job or an opportunity to continue with higher education. It feels like the world is crumbling on you,” says Kevin Niragire.

Niragire, 20, has for the last 14 years been in Kiziba Refugee Camp in Karongi District, home to 17,000 Congolese refugees. Rwanda hosts more than 70,000 Congolese refugees.

The camp has an education enrolment of 694 children in Early Child Development, 822 in nursery, 3,888 in primary and 1,715 in secondary school.

The students now have hope to access higher education through the Keplar University Programme that began in November last year – the first of its kind in a refugee camp worldwide.

The programme was launched with funding from IKEA Foundation, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Kepler University.

Located in Karongi District, Western Province, the university is situated within the refugee camp.

“Keplar’s primary objective is to ensure that no one encounters challenges in receiving quality higher education regardless of their background. Keplar realised that refugees here don’t have access to university education yet they have good academic results. Although for other Keplar students there’s a fee, for the refugees, it’s 100 percent free,” said Jean Marie Vianney Hitamungu, a course facilitator and assistant coordinator at Keplar Kiziba.

The best performing students are sent to Keplar Kigali campus where they live in group houses and are also given stipends.

“However, that is different with the students here. These students still live with their families because we are not able to build a group house within the camp. But we provide other facilities like laptops, WiFi and refreshments when they come for lectures because most of them teach in the refugee school,” Hitamungu said.

Keplar University has given the students a chance at a better life, but what kind of education are they getting?

According to Hitamungu, presently, the students go through foundation courses such as business, technology, communication skills and professional competencies.

Foundation courses help students to prepare for College of America platform under the Southern New Hampshire University, where they eventually graduate.

Students also start internship programmes in their second year where they are supervised by course facilitators to ensure that they are able to apply their skills in the work environment.

“Our supervision also aims at identifying areas where our students might be weak so that we start going through modules with them. We always give them assessment tests after every six weeks to help continuously monitor their performance. In their third year, they can get jobs and they continue with their studies while waiting for graduation,” Hitamungu added.

With 23 pioneer students enrolled in the programme at the camp, Hitamungu is optimistic that their future is bright. They actively participate during their lessons and they constantly ask for more material for reading and exercises.

When The New Times visited, there was a participation of over 95 per cent among the students. Although they were struggling through the communications skills class they were in, their desire to learn was remarkable.

Course facilitators at Keplar Kiziba alternate with those based at the Kigali campus. Presently, there are two course facilitators, one teacher and the programme coordinator.

One of the course facilitators, Sereverien Ngarukiye, says students at Kiziba campus are really happy to be in the programme and their willingness to study is encouraging.

“I would classify my experience in teaching these students in two ways: the first is participation in class; students are willing to learn. When we give them assignments in groups, they always come to class when it’s completed and also submit it on time. This shows that they are committed to this programme,” he said.

Ngarukiye said their level of technological know-how has improved compared to when they started the programme last year. Almost three students are able to type over 50 words per minute presently.

Kevin Niragire, a student, said he can now type 63 words per minute and that his English has improved since enrolling for the programme. He said the ethical courses they are taught on how to conduct themselves in society and within a workplace was a defining factor.

Niragire is looking forward to the next five years; to have a stable job and probably go back to his motherland DR Congo and actively participate in helping it become a better country.

As Niragire looks toward his future, so is Alicia Murekatete, who said with the course, she’s no longer wary of the future.

The programme still operates within one classroom but Keplar Kiziba hopes to construct a campus in time for the next intake. The university has already identified a place to construct a campus and probably construction will start in August.

According to UNHCR, there is primary and lower secondary education for all refugees in camps, with the agency investing over $3.86 million in education for refugees in Rwanda in 2015.

Part of the funding supports the expansion of Government schools through classroom construction and training and hiring of teachers to enable refugees to integrate into the national education system.

In addition, UNHCR has already constructed 112 classrooms at a local government school near Mahama Camp in Kirehe District, so that Burundian refugee children can attend classes alongside Rwandan children.

The Kepler programme is a first of its kind in the world – in which the university uses a blended learning model to help refugees in Kiziba obtain a US-accredited degree without even leaving the camp.

“We are fortunate that Kepler University selected Rwanda to launch this innovative programme to help refugees access tertiary education, particularly in a camp where most refugees have lived for 20 years, some their entire lives in the case of children,” said Saber Azam, UNHCR country representative.

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