Award puts Malian refugee on road to university in Mauritania

Fatimetou is the only woman among this year's 18 recipients of DAFI scholarships at Nouakchott University, which enable young refugees to enrol in higher education.

Fatimetou goes through her first English exam at Noaukchott University.
© UNHCR/Helena Pes

The lecture hall is filled with students wearing colourful veils and turbans. Fatimetou’s eyes are focused on the English exam paper on the desk, her pen darting over the paper under the watchful eye of the supervisor.

A refugee from Mali, she is the only woman among this year’s 18 students at Nouakchott University who have received scholarships from the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund , known by the German acronym DAFI, which are designed to enable young refugees to enrol in higher education. 

After her school in northern Mali closed and she was forced to flee to Mauritania, she did not imagine she would go to school again, let alone study English at university.

“English is something I wanted to learn,” she said. “My initial dream was to study communications but the conflict changed everything. At that time, when I saw my community going through unbearable suffering, I had lost all hope for the future.”

She is not alone. Most refugees in Mauritania have missed years of school and struggle to acquire an education, particularly at higher level, and many face a language barrier or lack the funds to support themselves during their studies.

Worldwide, more than 65 million people are currently uprooted by wars and persecution, including more than 22.5 million refugees, more than half of whom are children. Opportunities to learn diminish greatly when children are forced to flee their homes and as they grow older, a troubling report from UNHCR has found. It says only 50 per cent are enrolled in primary school, 22 per cent in secondary, and one per cent in tertiary education.

Fatimetou’s journey was fraught with difficulties. She and her family were taken to Mbera refugee camp, temporary home for more than 50,000 Malian refugees. Almost half its nomadic population are illiterate and less than one percent – hardly any of them girls -- make it past the final year of secondary school.

"At first, my mother did not want me to study,” Fatimetou said. “She would have liked me to stop after primary school, because she thought that level was enough for me to learn at least how to speak French and then come back to stay at home with her, that's what she wanted.”

Her mother feared that leaving home might expose her to violence, telling her: “If you leave my home, I do not know what will happen to you.”

"Girls’ attendance drops drastically when we look at secondary school figures."

Many girls whose parents are illiterate, like Fatimetou’s mother and father, grow up believing that education may not be suitable for them.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and other humanitarian organisations have been pressing for the inclusion of girls in education in Mbera camp.

“As a result of these continued sensitization efforts in Mbera, the percentage of girls enrolled in the six primary schools of the camp is now almost equal to that of boys,” said Nabil Othman, UNHCR Representative in Mauritania.

“However, girls’ attendance drops drastically when we look at secondary school figures, representing only 27 percent of students. In the fifth year of the Mali crisis, we can no longer afford the loss of new generations.”

Fatimetou feels relieved after finishing her first English exam at Noaukchott University.  © UNHCR/Helena Pes

Hundreds of thousands of people in Mali fled their homes after clashes between armed rebels and government forces erupted in early 2012.  For Fatimetou, life took an unexpected turn when she found herself in the camp with her family.

“In the crisis of 2012, I lost a cousin and other family members,” she said. She and her family fled first to the Mauritanian border town of Fassala and were taken to Mbera camp in a convoy. “Every one of us had witnessed unbearable suffering,” she said.

“As soon as I got into the camp, I felt I had to do everything in my power to help people. I am a daughter of this community and felt it was only natural for me to do something to alleviate their suffering.”

She could speak French and she set about helping Malians to understand the procedures in the camp.

“Thanks to this experience of the camp I developed more self-confidence.”

She worked first as an interpreter, then as a community representative assisting UNHCR staff and its partner NGOs, such as Intersos and Action Against Hunger, to pass on life-saving information to refugees. However, she did not give up her dream of being able to continue her studies.

“By the time I was 16, I could do things that other girls couldn’t do,” she said. “I was able to make people understand things, explain to them how to register as refugees and make them understand their rights.

“This made me understand the power of language and it also convinced my mother to embrace the advantages of education.” Fatimetou explained.

“Thanks to this experience of the camp I developed more self-confidence. It motivated me to go ahead and continue my studies.”

Fatimetou completed her baccalaureate in Mbera camp, which allowed her to compete for the DAFI scholarship.

She is among a small number who took on the challenge of studying English in the Arabic- and French-speaking country.

English is not taught at school in Mbera camp, which follows the Malian curriculum, so refugees from Mali have no basic knowledge of the language and must start from scratch, which discourages most of the candidates.

“I chose English because it is the first language in the world,” Fatimetou said. “It will allow me to communicate with many people and I love communication.

“The most important thing to me is to help my community. I want to be able to talk about the reality we experience to the world and I know that learning English will help me do that. It will also help me to understand the world and discover things that are different, new and interesting ways of living.”