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Training teachers at the world’s largest refugee camp

Canadian and Kenyan universities join forces to provide formal training to volunteer teachers.


September’s brazen attack that killed at least 67 people at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, brought the world’s attention to a region that, while troubled, does not typically claim daily headlines. Yet, fewer people know of the slower horror that has unfolded in this region over the past 20 years, with the displacement of half a million people to what’s regularly described as the world’s largest refugee camp.

Surrounding the town of Dadaab on the Kenya-Somali border, three major camps occupy 50 square kilometres, defying the common perception of refugee camps as transient and chaotic. Created by the Somalian civil war of the early 1990s, the Dadaab camps 20 years later house half-a-million people and feature rudimentary streets, storefronts, hospitals and even primary and secondary schools.

In recent years, Dadaab has captured the attention of an innovative consortium of universities, including York University and the University of British Columbia from Canada and Moi University, Kenyatta University and the African Virtual University from Kenya. The consortium created Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, known as BHER, whose aim is to provide formal training to the dozens of uncertified volunteer teachers who already teach in the camp.

BHER kicked off the training this past summer with a bridging program called InStep; its full two-year teacher education diploma will start next summer. Diploma programs in other subjects including public health are scheduled to follow.

As soon as the bridging program was announced, BHER received 500 applications and admitted 187 students. Three-quarters of them are refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Chad, and one-quarter are Kenyan nationals who are also living in the Daadab refugee camps.

Students range in age from 18 to 50, with most in their 20s. Although the consortium is mandated to attract more women to the program, at this point fewer than one in five is female. Modelled on university transition programs, InStep aims to bring students up to university level by offering three components: English for academic purposes; research methods; and computer skills. Since refugee teachers cannot afford to give up the small wage they earn teaching at the camp, the courses are taught intensively during the school holiday months of August, April, and December.

“Students are finding the first month of bridging is demanding and challenging, but they are pleased with the rigour,” said Wenona Giles, a York University anthropology professor at York’s Centre for Refugee Studies and co-chair of the BHER initiative at York. The first cohort started their bridging program this past August. The summer also saw construction progress on a new learning centre in the camp that will house seminar rooms and a computer room run on generators.

The university consortium, partnering with World University Service of Canada (WUSC), Windle Trust Kenya and other non-profit organizations, secured $4.5 million in funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, as well as partnership development grants and additional support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. York and UBC are also foregoing tuition to offer the programs on a cost-recovery basis.

Students who complete the bridging program will be eligible to take either an elementary teaching diploma offered by Kenyatta University in partnership with York or a high school teaching program offered by Moi University in partnership with UBC. The UBC-Moi program will start at the camp next summer, with a first cohort of 40 to 80 students. York’s courses will be offered to Dadaab and York students at the same time.

“While a prof is teaching here [in Toronto] it will be online in camp, and then he’ll go to the camp and it will be online here,” explained Dr. Giles. A course in “education for a sustainable future” is scheduled to be offered next August, “integrated arts” in December 2014 and “global issues and education” in April 2015. Students will interact through discussion boards and online video and lessons.

Both UBC and York have been planning to send professors to teach part of the courses in the camps, with long-established contingency plans to teach the courses online if the environment is unsafe. “We were already preparing courses that can be delivered online if need be,” said Dr. Giles.

She said the camp has seen decreased stability since September 2011, due to flooding in Somalia and political crises, but that such challenges provide even more reasons to offer initiatives that keep students and their teachers focussed on a positive future: “We do think that our BHER programs offer a good alternative to joining militia groups like the Al-Shabab” which, incidentally, means “youth” or “youth movement.”

For WUSC, the BHER project was a natural fit with the organization’s mandate to help vulnerable women and youth. WUSC recently celebrated 35 years of its program to sponsor refugees to attend a year of university in Canada,

Women in refugee camps face complex barriers to complete an education, said Tom Tunney, WUSC’s senior manager of youth and community engagement. “Girls, if they are able to attend school, are also responsible for household chores, so their only time to study is in the evening when there’s no electricity.” WUSC and other groups started raising funds for solar lamps to overcome that particular obstacle.

These hardships are apparent on the ground, say BHER organizers who have visited the Dadaab camps. “You’ll have five kids crammed at a desk looking at one very old and tattered, worn textbook,” said Rita Irwin, associate dean of teacher education in UBC’s faculty of education.

She and her UBC colleagues were impressed by the dedicated students learning without resources we take for granted. For example, high school physics students are asked to imagine what a Bunsen burner is. The first time they will use one is the day they are tested, performing an experiment on an instrument they had never seen.

But with certifications and perhaps university diplomas down the road, access to university-level instruction may give students a leg up once they return to their home countries. The creators of BHER hope that Dadaab may be a model for similar programs in other camps and countries.

“We see a direct connection between higher education and peace building,” said Dr. Giles. “Like our Kenyan partners and other Canadian partners, we think education is the basis for building better countries, for moving away from militarization to productive ways to earning a living.”

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