Refugee Teacher Scales Heights to Global Stage

“One of my students went on to Princeton, one of the top Ivy League schools in the US, for his undergraduate degree, then to Germany where he completed his postgraduate degree. He is now pursuing his doctorate.”

Refugee students at their classroom in Midnimo primary school, in Ifo camp of Dadaab.

Refugee, Michael Walter Kagwa, Global Teacher Prize nominee.

When Michael Walter Kagwa, a refugee teacher from Dadaab refugee camp travelled to the United Arab Emirates for the Global Teacher Award, he couldn’t believe his luck. He travelled as a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. It’s an award given by the Varkey Foundation, a charity whose 2016 forum was patronised by the Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum.

It was a dream come true. Michael has spent his entire adult life moulding the lives of young people in various secondary schools in Ifo camp, one of the four camps in Dadaab.

When Michael and the rest of his family fled Uganda to Kenya three decades ago in 1987, due to political unrest, nothing had prepared him for life as a refugee. But Michael always knew he would be a teacher. After graduating with a Fine Arts degree from Makerere University, he enrolled for a postgraduate Diploma in Education. Michael and his family were housed at the Thika Centre for the Reception of Refugees on the outskirts of Nairobi. It was here that Michael organized fellow refugees into small groups and started teaching them basic science, numeracy and communications skills.

‘We were using the dining hall as a classroom,’ Michael says.

On 21st July 1995, Michael and the rest of the Ugandan refugees were moved to Dadaab, which is home to about 250,000 refugees. Facilities were scarce if not outright non-existent, trained teachers were unheard of and language barriers prevailed. It was a difficult place to live, let alone work. But thanks to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners like CARE Kenya, support for people like Michael, keen to use their skills, was provided.

As Michael was a trained teacher he was extremely useful and helpful to many refugees wanting to learn. He started teaching English at Midnimo Primary School in Ifo. Realising his leadership skills, he was made the Headteacher in 1998 and was instrumental in preparing learners for the first ever Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination in Dadaab. Learners sit for KCPE examinations, administered by the Kenya National Examinations Council, in class 8 before transiting to secondary school. Seventy three students sat for the exams that year and the 43 who passed, moved on to secondary school.

Michael is now Assistant Education Officer with Islamic Relief Kenya. Over 250 of his former students are pursuing Bachelors or Masters degrees in countries like Canada, United Kingdom, the US, Germany and Australia.

“One of my students went on to Princeton, one of the top Ivy League schools in the US, for his undergraduate degree, then to Germany where he completed his postgraduate degree. He is now pursuing his doctorate,” Michael quips with a smile.

These are results of his focus and emphasis on good teacher training. The majority of teachers in refugee camps are normally untrained. Michael developed a programme, in conjunction with CARE International to regularly train teachers. The training focused on aspects of pedagogy, classroom management, preparation and planning, and general student care.

“At least every teacher in Ifo now has some sort of teacher training and this is great for students. We now have ready manpower to impart knowledge and to prepare our young people for the future,” Michael adds.

Due to the evolution of the curriculum in which many new subjects are being offered to refugee students, teacher training is at the core of an effective teaching. Students now study Mathematics, English, Arabic, Kiswahili, Science, History, Business Studies, and Religious Education. As an Assistant Education Officer, Michael travels across the camp from Monday to Thursday meeting teachers and helping provide their training requirements.

Michael Walter Kagwa, a teacher from Ifo refugee camp, who was among the 2016 Top 50 finalists in the Global Teacher Prize during the interview at the UNHCR Dadaab office. ; Michael who has been in Dadaab camp since July 1995 was nominated to the prestigious Global Teacher Prize run by the Varkey Foundation in which the winner receives 1,000,000 USD. UNHCR/B.Rono

But how did Michael come to be shortlisted for the Global Teacher Prize? As a teacher, he was always instrumental in linking refugee students to a non-governmental organisations called the Blue Rose Compass. It offers refugees the opportunity to build a new life, by providing them with education and university scholarships. The founder and CEO of Blue Rose Compass and Varkey Foundation board member had seen the amazing work Michael was doing with young people. She advised him to apply to the Global Teacher Prize. Michael then had to find people to nominate him. Luckily, Michael had students from all over the world. They were all thrilled for him and happy to recommend him.

Michael had to compete with over 8000 teachers nominated from all over the world. The nominees had to go through a rigorous process of convincing the judges for the competition why they were best suited to win the USD 1,000,000 prize. Michael didn’t come out top, but was so happy to be recognised. The award went to a female Palestinian teacher.

“As someone who believes in the empowerment of women and girls, I couldn’t be prouder of the winner. We must continue to encourage and empower women and girls by giving them opportunities to excel. I thank those who supported me: UNHCR, CARE Kenya, Islamic Relief, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Windle Trust Kenya,” he says.

Michael now holds the title of ‘Varkey’s Teachers’ Ambassadors 2016.

“I met the Nobel Peace Prize Winner and educationalists, Malala Yousafzai, as a result of my participation in the prize. We discussed ideas to improve education for refugee communities. Education is a powerful weapon to change the world and fight all societal ills. Refugee students are talented and can excel if given the opportunity and resources to do so. I will continue to use my knowledge to change lives among communities in the camp,” Michael says.

We ask Michael what further support education for refugees need.

“As a Varkey Teacher Ambassador, I think we should also start our own local teacher prize in the camps. This would encourage many teachers to refine their skills in pedagogy, student care, subject content and classroom management. The more teachers get involved in such forums the better for all refugees in school.”