Classical concert raises funds for refugee girls' education in Kenya

More than 600 people gathered in Geneva for a charity concert by the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, led by the world famous conductor and pianist Christian Zacharias, in support of UNHCR's "Together for Girls" initiative in Dadaab refugee camp.

More girls are attending school in Kenya's Dadaab camp.   © UNHCR Kenya

GENEVA/DADAAB, May 12 (UNHCR) - They came for a classical music concert, and left with refugee voices humming in their heads, among them the story of Farida, a Somali refugee in Kenya's Dadaab camp.

Farida, 19, was not present at the charity concert by the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, led by the world famous conductor and pianist Christian Zacharias, at Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices. But she was there in spirit, her face peering from a screen above the stage.

"They are nearly 500,000 children in Africa who today do not have access to education," UNHCR's Senior Corporate Relations Officer, Linda Merieau, told the 600-strong audience. "But Farida has been incredibly lucky. She belongs to the minority of girls who have found their place on the school bench in Dadaab camp. She is dreaming about becoming a journalist - she loves to read and write. As she has just passed her secondary school exam, the dream could become reality now."

Farida's story is testimony to the success of "Together for Girls", a UNHCR initiative to promote education for refugee girls in Dadaab camp. Like her, Habibo Bishar Mohamed has benefited immensely from efforts to encourage girls' enrolment in school. The 19-year-old refugee recently emerged as one of the top students not just in Dadaab camp, but also in Kenya's vast North Eastern province. Her score in the 2004 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examination (KCSE) easily qualified her for university.

"My mother took me to school despite protests from some people who did not want girls to go to school," said Habibo. "The last two years were especially tough for me because my mother had gone back to Somalia and I had to take care of my brothers and sister. I had to fetch water and cook for them before making time to study."

Habibo was one of 18 refugee girls at Dadaab who sat for last year's KCSE exams. Overall, results in the camp improved dramatically, with 63 students attaining the mandatory minimum university entry grade of C+, compared to 24 the previous year.

"We are very happy with the performance of our students this year, especially the girls, who normally encounter cultural difficulties such as early marriages, female circumcision and general community apathy," said Toshiro Odashima, who heads the UNHCR office in Dadaab.

"If you walk into a classroom at Dadaab, in addition to the shortage of books and school materials, you would see another tragedy - that girls are absent at registration, for many reasons. It could be something as simple as the fact that there are no bathroom installations for girls. They stay at home because of there at no toilets for them," said Merieau. "In the upper classes, girls are fewer - married maybe, pregnant, or working to earn some money for the family."

Last year, UNHCR, with support from Nike and Care, started the "Together for Girls" initiative to encourage girls to stay in school, promoting their participation through sports. Sports games were introduced, like volleyball, netball and badminton.

"To boost sporting activities for girls, we have provided them with sports uniforms that are culturally appropriate - veils, skirts and scarves - and adapted to the hot weather conditions in Dadaab," said a Care worker.

Girls who attend school are also given sanitary materials, while 57 latrines have been built for their use in school.

With the recent exam results, young refugees at Dadaab are feeling very hopeful. Ahmed Ismail Mohamed's B+ score made him the top student in the entire North Eastern province while the previous year's top student, Abass Hassan Mohamed, has just won a scholarship to Princeton University in the United States, where he plans to study medicine.

"The benefits of this concert will give the girls a chance to attend university. Until now, they could not believe this was a possibility," said Merieau. "They now dare to dream of becoming a doctor, teacher or politician, to prevent future exodus like the ones they experienced."

Last night's concert, organised with the Lion's Club of Geneva, raised 20,000 Swiss francs (over US$16,000) for the "Together for Girls" initiative.

By Emmanuel Nyabera in Dadaab, Kenya
and Haude Morel in Geneva