Rwandan gets on his bike in Johannesburg to raise funds for education

News Stories, 22 November 2011

© Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase
Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase crosses the Nelson Mandela bridge in Johannesburg during the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, November 22 (UNHCR) Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase knew the road race would be a tough mental and physical challenge, but he had faced far worse in his native Rwanda and as a refugee.

In the end, he comfortably completed last Sunday's Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge under cloudy skies in Johannesburg, alongside thousands of professional and amateur riders.

And, more importantly, he raised vital funds for a scholarship programme to put refugees and asylum-seekers through the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). "Education is one of the ways we can help empower refugees to be self-reliant, [and] make a difference in their host countries," he said after taking part in the 94.7-km event, the world's second-largest timed bicycle race.

The 30-year-old, who was granted asylum in South Africa a decade ago and now works as an account executive at a leading training and enterprise development company, knows from experience how important higher education is. "Against all odds, I was able to graduate from university while struggling as a refugee . . . UKZN was the first university in South Africa to change their policy to allow recognized refugees to receive financial aid," he told UNHCR.

Kabalira-Uwase first came to South Africa in 2001, fleeing persecution in Rwanda, which is still trying to come to terms with its dark past. "During the genocide [of 1994], we had several attempts on our lives by the interhamwe [a largely ethnic Hutu militia] because we were thought to be moderate Hutus, and later on we were accused of being sympathetic to the interhamwe."

At his mother's urging, he set out on a long journey by boat, vehicle and foot that took him through Tanzania and Mozambique to South Africa. "My main goal was to get somewhere where I would be safe, but also could go to university," he recalled, adding that he had planned to head across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, "because it was a French-speaking country and my first language was French."

But he changed his mind after a chance meeting in an internet café in Mozambique with a Congolese man who suggested that Kabalira-Uwase go to South Africa, where asylum-seekers and refugees have the right to work and study. He reached Durban and was granted asylum in November 2001.

Once in South Africa, he knew he had to learn English to make his dream of a university education come true. He found non-skilled labour and spent his free time reading books and watching television to perfect his English.

In November 2001, Kabalira-Uwase successfully applied to study physics at UKZN but was denied a grant because he was not a South African citizen. Luckily, the policy on financial support was amended and he was able to take up his place with a bursary to cover his tuition, accommodation, meals, book allowance, general allowance and travel expenses.

Armed with a Bachelor's degree, he easily found a good job as a business systems and data analysis for a major bank. Ever since, and fired by meetings with other refugees, he has been looking for a way to help others get the kind of education that helped him to become a successful professional.

"I thought I have to do something," said Kabalira-Uwase, who decided to approach UNHCR, which runs a higher education scholarship programme to promote self-sufficiency among refugees and boost their chances of finding a solution to their situation. But there is fierce annual competition for a limited number of places on the German-funded Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative, or DAFI.

"We currently support 43 refugees with university scholarships in South Africa. This year, we had some 600 applications, but funds available to support only 25 new students," explained UNHCR Senior Programme Officer Kate Makanga.

So Kabalira-Uwase approached the University of KwaZulu-Natal Foundation and convinced them of the need to establish a scholarship fund for refugees and asylum-seekers. "We know that among asylum-seekers and refugees there are many talented but needy students and through this fund, we could also help them," said the UKZN Foundation's executive director, Bruno Van Dyk.

The challenge was to raise money for the fund. That's where the "Road to Education for Refugees and Asylum Seekers" project came from. And Kabalira-Uwase managed to persuade others to join him in the race, like Chantelle Mann from Australia.

"I cannot imagine being denied this privilege [of education]. When I went to school, all the facilities were available to me financial aid and scholarships. Hearing Pie's story made it really easy to want to support this cause and help others like him," she said. And UNHCR is also fully behind the project, which seems set to become an annual event in the annual event. "This is only the beginning, Kabalira-Uwase said, adding: "The Road to Education for Refugees and Asylum-Seekers will continue!"

By Tina Ghelli in Johannesburg, South Africa

To find out more about the project, go to




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.


Fund-raising is vital to UNHCR, which relies on donations for almost all of its annual budget.

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

Kigeme: A home carved from the hills for Congolese refugees

The Kigeme refugee camp in Rwanda's Southern province was reopened in June 2012 after thousands of Congolese civilians started fleeing across the border when fighting erupted in late April between Democratic Republic of the Congo government forces and fighters of the rebel M23 movement. Built on terraced hills, it currently houses more than 14,000 refugees but was not significantly affected by the latest fighting in eastern Congo, which saw the M23 capture the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, before withdrawing. While many of the adults long for lasting peace in their home region, the younger refugees are determined to resume their education. Hundreds enrolled in special classes to help them prepare for the Rwandan curriculum in local primary and secondary schools, including learning different languages. In a camp where more than 60 per cent of the population are aged under 18 years, the catch-up classes help traumatized children to move forward, learn and make friends.

Kigeme: A home carved from the hills for Congolese refugees

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