Changing Perceptions of Refugeehood Through Targeted Support

Refugee College Guidance Counselors Ella (right) and Sadiki (center). Photo: Julia Cumes, 2018 Refugee College Guidance Counselors Ella (right) and Sadiki (center). Photo: Julia Cumes, 2018

Higher education opportunities are often limited or non-existent for refugees around the world. The lives of future generations are lost in the process of fighting to survive in host countries. Taking on this challenge, over 20 organizations and programs put their heads together to create the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, whose goal is to expand higher education opportunities for refugees.

My colleague Ella and I have recently made the transition from students to Refugee College Guidance Counselors through a generous grant from the College Board in the United States, joining the network of diverse actors in this space.

We are excited to serve the refugee community. We know how hard it is to pursue tertiary education when you have refugee status. In Africa, it feels like an impossible journey. However, we believe that it is not only possible, but transformational.

Sadiki Bamperineza
Sadiki Bamperineza

Currently, our focus is working to change refugees’ perceptions of their situation and the ‘deficit mentality’ many hold about their perceived lack of abilities.

We are proud to be Refugee College Guidance Counselors. Our pride lies in increasing the number of young refugees accessing higher education programs, inspiring the students who are already in programs, and seeing refugees graduating and finding jobs to change their lives and support their families and communities.

We advise high school graduates, students taking tertiary education preparation programs, and refugees who are already in higher education programs. We listen to students and advise them on how to cope with challenges similar to the ones we have faced ourselves.

In order to serve as many people as possible, we are creating a guidance counseling internship model for refugee communities, which will allow us to expand our impact across sites in Africa and the Middle East. Kakuma Refugee Camp will be our pilot for implementation of the intern model. We first visited Kakuma in December 2018 and found it to be a cosmopolitan refugee camp hosting refugees from a wide range of African countries. During our visit to Kakuma, we met our first intern, Mayen, a South Sudanese student studying with Jesuit Worldwide Learning on a Southern New Hampshire University degree programme. He helped us learn about the broader context of Kakuma camp and how we can best support refugee students there. We believe that this internship model will better involve refugee students as stakeholders in the education of their communities.

We also directly serve refugee students who are trying to access, or already attending, tertiary education programs in Rwanda. Romain is a Kepler Kigali student who was recently selected for the MIT React fellowship.

Romain says, “I wasn’t initially motivated to apply for the MIT React fellowship opportunity because I was lagging behind. When I went to meet the RCGC for the one on one advising, he advised me to create a feasible work plan which shows that I will meet the expectations and be able to work on the fellowship. I have respected that work plan and applied for the fellowship, which I successfully earned. If you approach the RCGC and you share your worries as a student, they help you to figure out what to do next. ”

As always, in our work with individual students, we are looking for strategies and techniques which will be scalable to the larger refugee population. We also help high school graduates who want to make their dreams a reality through preparatory programs. Ozzy is a Burundian refugee and a graduate from ITEME (Bridge) program, which was launched by Kepler to help secondary school graduates to get into tertiary education programs. He has managed to secure a job after completing the Iteme Program. Now, he is working at JAVA House and studying at the University of Kigali.

From our experience, young refugees are changing their perceptions of refugee hood through being able to study, graduate and secure jobs as nationals.

Ozzy says, “After finishing Iteme Program, I have secured a job which is helping me to pay my school fees. The program has changed my perception of refugeehood. Now, I know that I can become the person that I dreamed to be despite my refugee status.”

From our experience, young refugees are changing their perceptions of refugee hood through being able to study, graduate and secure jobs as nationals. We are heartened by these success stories, but we still have a lot to accomplish. The demand for higher education continues to grow. Our efforts to create an internship model which will scale our work as guidance counselors is one promising effort towards accomplishing our larger goal of opening doors to higher education for everyone; by working together, we can make this a reality.