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Scholarship helps ex-refugee stay in school despite strife

News Stories, 8 April 2003

© UNHCR/F.Fontanini
DAFI scholar Hokie hopes to become a teacher in Sierra Leone after she graduates.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UNHCR) Sierra Leonean returnee Hokie has always learnt things the hard way. But far from dropping out of school, the 27-year-old has persevered with higher education through two disruptive civil wars.

Born in the village of Taninahun, Pujehun district, southern Sierra Leone, Hokie completed her high school exams in 1990, becoming the only child in her family to go to school and the first woman in her village to complete high school.

In 1991, she fled fighting in her country and sought refuge in neighbouring Liberia without her family. But she never lost her zest for learning. In 1995, she got to know a Sierra Leonean woman who ran a secretarial school in Monrovia. Hokie was not only accepted in the school but also offered a three-year scholarship to specialise in secretarial studies.

Unfortunately, the school was closed when fighting reached Monrovia in 1996. But Hokie did not lose hope and enrolled at the Leigh-Sherman Community College in 1998 for a year. In 1999, she started working as a registrar and secretary in a refugee school at Samukai camp, where she was living.

A year later, she applied for a scholarship under the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund, known as DAFI, and became one out of 16 refugees to qualify for the award.

The DAFI scholarship programme is a trust fund provided annually by the German government to UNHCR. It aims to help needy and deserving refugee students who had attained excellent results in secondary school to continue their academic studies in developing countries. While UNHCR focuses on providing basic education (in primary and junior secondary schools) to all refugee children and youths in Sierra Leonean camps, DAFI is the only scholarship available worldwide for refugee students at the tertiary level.

UNHCR implements and monitors this programme. Over 50 refugees have benefited since it started in Sierra Leone in 1995. Six scholarships are available this year.

The number of scholarships allocated to each country programme is linked to the number of refugees, the socio-economic and political situation of the refugee caseload and their durable solutions options.

DAFI scholarships are part of a broader UNHCR strategy of durable solutions and the promotion of self-reliance among refugees. They aim to enhance the qualification of refugees and thereby enable them to actively contribute to the reconstruction and economic recovery of their home country after voluntary repatriation. In the context of local settlement, DAFI scholarships for academic studies can facilitate the local integration of qualified refugees in their country of asylum.

In 2001, Hokie was admitted to the AME Zion University College in Monrovia. But as fighting in Liberia intensified and peace returned to her homeland, she decided to go back to Sierra Leone before the end of her third year in university.

After 11 years in the refugee camps, she was finally reunited with her parents in Taninahun village. "They were really old," she said.

Determined to complete her studies, Hokie asked for help from UNHCR in Sierra Leone. As she had left Liberia for valid security reasons, she was able to continue benefiting from the DAFI programme in Freetown. She started attending lessons at the Milton Margai College of Education and Technology in Freetown after UNHCR Monrovia provided the college with her transcript.

Hokie has become a role model in her village and is confident she will have a bright future. "I always encourage the parents to send their children to school. This is important to develop our town," she said.

She believes strongly in education because she feels it is important to have a better view and knowledge of the world, and to communicate with people from different backgrounds. When she graduates next year, she hopes to become a teacher so that she can contribute to the future of Sierra Leone.

For now, daily life is still a struggle. Her annual fees cost 200,000 Leones ($100). Under the DAFI scholarship, she receives 500,000 Leones every four months. This covers her housing in Freetown, books, transportation, clothing, food and pocket money.

But Hokie also has an added burden. When she returned to Sierra Leone, she brought two girls who had stayed with her in the Liberian refugee camp. Their father had been killed during the war and their mother was in no position to help them. "I cannot leave them alone, they are under my umbrella," she said.

One is attending secondary school and the other will be taking her national primary school examinations to enter junior secondary school.

"I have found out that it is really hard to survive," said Hokie of their financial situation. "Freetown is very expensive because we are just out of the war." She and her two wards receive no medical benefits and sometimes require additional study fees. She is worried these pressures may affect her studies.

Still, she is very grateful to her DAFI sponsors and UNHCR: "Without this programme I would not have continued my education. I will always appreciate their effort for rendering such assistance to me at this crucial time."

Hokie is one of a luckier few. Many more like her will need help to continue their education, given the young population in Sierra Leone's refugee camps. Some 48 percent are below 18 years old, and 30 percent are between five and 18 years of age. Among the country's refugee camps, there are currently 158 high school graduates and 81 university students requesting for support to continue their education.

By Francesca Fontanini
UNHCR Sierra Leone




UNHCR country pages


Education is vital in restoring hope and dignity to young people driven from their homes.

DAFI Scholarships

The German-funded Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative provides scholarships for refugees to study in higher education institutes in many countries.


UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Seeds of Hope

20 Years of DAFI: A UNHCR exhibition highlights the impact of higher education for refugee communities.

Chad: Education in Exile

UNHCR joins forces with the Ministry of Education and NGO partners to improve education for Sudanese refugees in Chad.

The ongoing violence in Sudan's western Darfur region has uprooted two million Sudanese inside the country and driven some 230,000 more over the border into 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Although enrolment in the camp schools in Chad is high, attendance is inconsistent. A shortage of qualified teachers and lack of school supplies and furniture make it difficult to keep schools running. In addition, many children are overwhelmed by household chores, while others leave school to work for local Chadian families. Girls' attendance is less regular, especially after marriage, which usually occurs by the age of 12 or 13. For boys and young men, attending school decreases the possibility of recruitment by various armed groups operating in the area.

UNHCR and its partners continue to provide training and salaries for teachers in all 12 refugee camps, ensuring a quality education for refugee children. NGO partners maintain schools and supply uniforms to needy students. And UNICEF is providing books, note pads and stationary. In August 2007 UNHCR, UNICEF and Chad's Ministry of Education joined forces to access and improve the state of education for Sudanese uprooted by conflict in Darfur.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Chad: Education in Exile

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

UNHCR has begun transferring refugees from Côte d'Ivoire to a new refugee camp in the north-eastern Liberian town of Bahn. Over the coming weeks UNHCR hopes to move up to 15,000 refugees into the facility, which has been carved out of the jungle. They are among almost 40,000 civilians from Côte d'Ivoire who have fled to escape mounting political tension in their country since the presidential election in late November.

The final number of people to move to Bahn will depend on how many wish to be relocated.from villages near the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border. Initially most of the refugees were taken in by host communities, living side-by-side with locals. Poor road conditions made it difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance. Supplies of food, medicine and water have been running low, making conditions difficult for both locals and refugees.

At the camp in Bahn, refugees will have easy access to basic services such as health care, clean water and primary school education.

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

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