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