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Stanford University students establish World Refugee Academy

Stanford University students establish World Refugee Academy

A team of Stanford University students has started a unique education programme in Botswana to facilitate the development of young refugees into responsible leaders and candidates for world-renowned universities.
18 March 2004
Refugee youth attending school at Dukwi camp in Botswana.

GABORONE, Botswana (UNHCR) - "My father and mother are no longer in my life due to the killings in my country. I try to support my younger sisters, but I will never succeed in this if I cannot continue my education."

At the age of 22, Iddy-Amani Ghislain shares the same problems as many of the world's refugees. Ethnic fighting in Burundi killed his father and put his life, home and family under threat, causing him to seek refuge in Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana. All he has left is a hope to continue his education.

"When I discovered people who passed through the same circumstances as me, and used education to be who they are, I came to conclude that the only thing that stands between a man and what he wants from life is the will to try it and the faith to believe that it is possible. And the engine of it all is education. An educated person is a bridge that helps people to see the life on the other side of bridge."

Like Iddy, many young refugees have seen their schooling interrupted by civil war or violence, their schools bombed or burned. They dream of finishing their education so that they can be self-sufficient and help end the terrors they have faced in their lives.

There are more than 10 million refugee children and youth in the world. If empowered through education, this generation will be able to help bring their home countries back to peace and stability. Sadly, there are few opportunities for refugee youth to be educated beyond secondary school. Iddy is one of the lucky few, but although he is qualified, his opportunities for further education are extremely limited.

Now a new partnership between UNHCR and a group of students from Stanford University in the United States aims to change all that, and more.

After completing an education project at Dukwi refugee camp in July 2003, a team of Stanford University students is now pursuing a unique education programme for refugee youth: the World Refugee Academy (WRA). Its mission is to facilitate the development of young refugees into responsible leaders and candidates for world-renowned universities.

The project was launched in June 2003, when 11 Stanford University students - coming from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds and varying academic disciplines - spent a month volunteering at the secondary school at Dukwi camp. Seeking to understand and assess the education situation at the camp, their objective was to identify key areas of need and address them, together with the refugee community.

"Hearing about refugee issues in Africa seems so distant from the US, so we wanted to learn through working hand in hand with refugees in a camp, and then promote refugee awareness by sharing our experiences on the Stanford campus, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the rest of the United States," explains Taylor Ahlgren, a Stanford 2003 graduate and now WRA's Executive Director based in Botswana.

With the support of UNHCR staff, Chief of Mission Benny Otim, refugee students and teachers, and the Dukwi refugee community, the Stanford team undertook a number of initiatives to improve the education situation at the camp. Their projects included building a library at the school for 25,000 newly donated books from Books for Africa, providing tutoring and teacher support in various subjects (namely commerce, maths, science, geography, English language and literature, history and computer science), helping to launch the first issue of the school magazine "Focus", and implementing the "Raising a Reader" programme, which promotes a culture of reading and learning among primary school children at home and at school.

While working at the school, the Stanford team quickly recognised that the refugee students had great potential, were commitment to excel in school and had a desire to pursue higher level learning. They saw refugee students studying until the early hours of the morning or selling their food rations to travel to Botswana's capital, Gaborone, in search of information and opportunities for university education.

"I believe education is the key and solution to my life, Burundi, Africa and the entire world. I humbly appeal to any governmental organisation, church, non-governmental organisation, company, industry and anybody to support my further education to liberate my life," says Amon Buhori, an outstanding Burundian refugee student. He hopes to pursue post-secondary school in Botswana so that he can be educated and play a key role in leading the economic development of Africa.

Despite their dedication and UNHCR's efforts to provide secondary level education, young refugees worldwide face serious barriers to obtaining quality tertiary education. Leading universities favour candidates who have completed advanced secondary coursework, and refugee youth have little or no access to schools that can provide this experience. In addition, when organisations provide scholarships to aid exceptional refugees, inadequate preparation often prevents them from achieving academic success.

"My goal is to complete a BA degree in a social science at a university in Canada or the United States. Eventually, I hope to work as the liaison officer or the head of UNESCO or UNHCR in Botswana or Kenya," says the WRA's first student Abdul Fatah Mohammed, a Somali refugee pursuing advanced secondary school at Legae Academy in Gaborone.

WRA aims to provide more and better opportunities for refugee students pursuing higher level education. The project plans to offer an advanced two-year preparatory programme for refugee students who aspire to continue higher academic study at leading universities worldwide. Its curriculum is designed especially for refugee youth and integrates rigorous academics, leadership projects and a mentoring programme.

WRA's mission rests on its core belief that harnessing the global potential of refugee youth through education also contributes to the education and leadership of refugee communities worldwide.

Team members need not search far for the model student that WRA aims to develop. One of WRA's founders, Kujtesa Bejtullahu, was a refugee during the recent Kosovo crisis. A group of volunteers (Kosovo Refugee Student Support Group) from Berkeley, California gathered resources and support for then 16-year-old Bejtullahu to complete her high school education in California. She was given a precious opportunity for education, which allowed her to continue her studies at Stanford University on a full-scholarship.

"I believe that educating and empowering youth who come from societies marked by tragic experiences of war, such as myself, is a critical aspect of fostering responsible future leadership. In the shorter term, providing such opportunities of education and empowerment directly benefits the post-conflict transition efforts," she explains. When she completes her degree, Bejtullahu plans to return home to contribute to the reconstruction and development of Kosovo.

Currently, WRA Executive Director Ahlgren is working with UNHCR in Botswana to launch the pilot project: WRA - Southern Africa. For 2004, the WRA has placed Mohammed in advanced secondary school. Ahlgren is developing the WRA programme of tutoring, leadership projects, mentoring and university application assistance with Mohammed and students at the University of Botswana, while implementing the Cisco Networking Academy in Dukwi camp.

The WRA team at Stanford (led by founders Bejtullahu and George Michalopoulos) is not only promoting and raising funds for the project. It is also busy sensitising the Stanford community to refugee issues by sharing their experiences through a refugee photo exhibition, campus speakers, and a student initiated course.

Through WRA - Southern Africa, the team hopes to create a unique model of education replicable in refugee-hosting regions worldwide. In addition, WRA will create a dedicated network of both member and refugee alumni that can play an active role in promoting the refugee cause globally.

* This story was contributed by the World Refugee Academy