A Congolese refugee’s dream nurtured through Rwandan education

JEAN PAUL Mugisha defied the odds to score maximum points in last year’s A’level examinations. The second born in a family of seven attained 73 points in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics (PCM), emerging the second-best PCM student countrywide.
Jean Paul Mugisha with some of his family members. Luck and exceptional performance has seen the Congolese refugee win bursaries throughout his education journey. Collins Mwai.
Jean Paul Mugisha with some of his family members. Luck and exceptional performance has seen the Congolese refugee win bursaries throughout his education journey. Collins Mwai.

JEAN PAUL Mugisha defied the odds to score maximum points in last year’s A’level examinations. The second born in a family of seven attained 73 points in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics (PCM), emerging the second-best PCM student countrywide. 

Performances like his attract scholarship offers from local and international universities, but Mugisha was not eligible for any of them – because he’s not a national. 

International law on refugees provides for only basic education for refugee children. Mugisha is one of the Congolese refugees who have been in Rwanda for 17 years now.

He moved to Rwanda when he was just three years old with his family. They were fleeing instability in Dr  Congo.

The family was resettled at Gihembe refugee camp, Gicumbi District where they have been for the last 17  years.

The only thing Mugisha knows about his families’ origin is that they hailed from Masisi in North Kivu, DR Congo.

Mugisha sat his Ordinary Level examinations at Gihembe Secondary school located within the refugee camp and got aggregate 8. The school offers education up to Senior Three. It was around the same time that Jesuit Refugee Service (JRC) was winding up its operations in Rwanda.

At the camp, amidst an almost hopeless state of refugee students ever getting any other qualification beyond an O’ level certificate, refugees contributed about Rwf70 per household and put up a high school. 

Though predominantly an O’ level school, Hope Academy, as the name suggests gives refugees some hope.

The school is in form of a single windowless mud and wattle structure with plastic sheets donated by UNHCR as roofing.

Students sit on wooden benches and the facilitators are usually former students who volunteer as they did not have a chance to advance to higher levels of education.

As the JRC staff was winding up, stories were going around the camp about a boy who had always performed well in final exams and had performed exemplary well in the O’ level examinations.

A nun who Mugisha remembers as Maria Carme, then the director of the programme heard the tale and offered to pay his first year’s fees in a boarding school in Musanze District, Ecole des Science de Musanze, saving him from the fate that befalls most of the other refugee students.

“The nun offered to pay my entire Senior Four fees in the first year before she left. It was a boarding school that offered scholarships to students who  performed exceptionally well in the first year. My performance in the first year earned me a bursary for the rest of the years. Another wellwisher provided me with upkeep and school materials I required,” Mugisha said.

He said he used to borrow  books from the school library for his friends back in the camp and participated in coaching those who were not as lucky as he was to get sponsorship.

On attaining 73 out of 73 points, Mugisha hoped for yet another scholarship to see him through university.

“Before the scholarship interviews, we (applicants) were  required to send in our credentials. I met all the requirements apart from national Identity Card. I tried applying for numerous courses every time I had an internet connection but nothing changed. I had no alternative but to go back to the camp,” he retorted.

At the camp, Mugisha dedicated his energy to teaching at the Hope Academy, somethinh he does voluntarily. His story continued making rounds in and out of the camp.

“By God’s grace, an organisation, These Numbers Have Faces, learnt of my experience. They sponsor talented and well performing students through university and ensures they have upkeep to see them through,” Mugisha said.

Currently, Mugisha is a first year student at the University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology (former KIST) pursuing Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering.

 During the interview, he kept looking at his watch, wary that he would be late for class. He is well aware of the chance he has and does not want to mess it up.  

Shoshon Tama Sweet, the director of Global Impact, the organisation running the programme, through local partners, that looks out for vulnerable but determined youth, said the intervention’s purpose is to see the scholars develop into independent people who can be self-reliant.

“We expect them to become self-reliant so that so that they do not have to depend on well-wishers. We are proud of who they are turning out to be. They are proof that hardwork and perseverance can overcome the worst circumstances. This is the story of Rwandans, it is the story of scholars we are supporting,” Tama Sweet said.

Mugisha is committed to makink the most out of what he has. At least once a month, he heads back to the Gihembe camp to volunteer because he feels he has too.

Of course it bothers him that his family lives in a camp among 14,000 others and he can do little about it now. It bothers him that members of his family only get Rwf200 a day from which they are supposed to get their meals and up keep.

In the next three years, he will graduate but with his status as a refugee, he will not stand a chance of formal employment despite being an engineer. 

“Since getting a job in the future remains uncertain because of my refugee status, I will be contented with being an entrepreneur though the odds are still stacked against me as it will require capital to do that,” Mugisha said.  

He is praying hard that reforms are undertaken at the international level to enable refugees get a chance to study and get a job if they are competent.

“I keep hoping that something will change soon,” Mugisha said.

The Minister for Disaster Management and Refugees affairs (Midmar), Seraphine Mukantabana, said since the issue has to do with international law, it is currently under discussion at the UN headquarters in Geneva.

“The case has been brought to the attention of the UN and they have promised to find a solution to enable the refugees further their studies past O’level and to the university for those who are excellent performers,” Mukantabana said. 

The minister said as they wait for a response from the UN, Midmar had submitted a petition to the Education ministry (Mineduc) on behalf of the Gihembe based school and were awaiting response.

“The file is with Mineduc as we await a response from Geneva, which we hope will be positive. Personally I do not see why it should be a contentious issue. We have a community based approach in dealing with refugees, there should be no reason for them not to access A’ level education like Rwandan students. It is a policy that Rwanda is looking to adopt and we are expecting that it will be aligned at the international level,” she said. 

Education minister Dr. Vincent Biruta said Hope school in Gihembe camp was currently undergoing assessment and evaluation after which a decision would be taken on whether it should be accredited or not. He said after the process and accreditation, students in the camp would be allowed to sit for national examinations.

The minister added that the refugees had a right to education and in the event that the school is not accredited, students will be enrolled in other schools around the camp.

UNHCR’s national programme officer Francois Abiyingoma, who also doubles as the officer in charge of education, said refugees are entitled to education. He however admitted that there had been a few constraints in ensuring access to education for the refugees.

“Education is part of UNHCR’s core protection mandate and a key pillar for protection. It is only through education that the refugees can become self-reliant,” Abiyingoma said.

He noted that UNHCR’s 2013-2016 education strategy sought to intergrate refugees in Rwanda’s 12-year basic education programme and that joint assessment exercises with WFP, Unicef, UN women and the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs to implement the strategy have been ongoing.

“Few refugees have had access to upper secondary education through various arrangements but we plan to have all refugees willing to study have a chance. Since there is political will to do so from the government and the local communities around the camp, some of the schools near the camps will be upgraded to accommodate refugee students.”

In the case of Gihembe, he said, UNHCR had approached the nearby schools on the matter and plans were underway to have the refugees accommodated in the already existing secondary schools.

He also noted that there was ap programme that provides scholarships to exemplary refugee students with some students under the programme currently pursuing masters                   programmes.


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