The huge grin on her face says it all – 16 September was the most exciting day of Raba Abdurahim Hakim’s life, when she boarded a flight for Nairobi, Kenya to begin a new chapter.
The 22-year-old Sudanese student was headed to the United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa), where she will be studying for a bachelor’s degree in psychology, through a Mastercard Foundation scholarship.
“I am so happy that my dream has finally come true!” she smiled as she hugged her father goodbye, moments before her departure from their modest house in Tongo refugee camp in Ethiopia.
The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is open to refugees in various countries across the world, including Ethiopia, where young refugee women like Raba and students from the local community who are “self-motivated and potential change makers with a strong commitment to improve their community” can apply.
“I am ready to learn new skills, make new friends and prepare for a future."
“I am ready to learn new skills, make new friends and prepare for a future that will allow me to return to Sudan one day and help my people,” she said.
For Raba, the opportunity follows a challenging educational journey.
Born to refugee parents in Ethiopia, she started at school in Sherkole refugee camp, where instruction is in English. Aged eight, her family returned home to their village in Sudan’s Blue Nile state, where she had to repeat Grade 1 as the curriculum was taught in Arabic.
“I tried to catch up with other students who knew both Arabic and their mother tongue, Funj, very well,” she recalled.
At the time, Raba had 10 siblings and she recalls how her father Abdurahim Hakim, a carpenter, would constantly emphasize that “every child must be in school.”
But when conflict erupted in Blue Nile in 2011, their lives were disrupted once again.
“An airplane dropped bombs and killed six of our neighbours,” she said.
The entire family hid in the bush for about a month, surviving on food that her parents managed to get after rushing back home when the aircraft had temporarily left the area. Although the end of Ramadan is an important festival for every Muslim, Raba remembers “nothing to celebrate” at the time.
Fearing for their lives, the family trekked overland to Ethiopia, arriving in Kurmuk where the reception is managed by Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Some days later, the family were transferred to Tongo refugee camp where they still live.
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Raba believes her life in the camp strengthened her resolve to succeed in her studies.
“I often woke up at 4 am to do my homework then left for school at 6 am,” she explained, adding that she would leave for school after cooking for her nine younger siblings.
The secondary school she attended was about a half-hour walk away, and in the evenings, she would study from nine to 11 pm in the room she shared with her two sisters.
Her father now brims with pride.
“Raba is a good child as she not only takes care of her younger siblings, but also encourages them to go to school,” said Abdurahim.
According to UNHCR’s annual education report, just 5 per cent of refugees access higher education globally and the figure is even lower for refugee girls. UNHCR aims to increase this figure to at least 15 per cent by the year 2030.
Raba’s teachers and her father kept motivating her and she continued studying at home. By the start of the new year, she was ready for the national final exams – more so, as the only female refugee student from the camp to sit the exams.
“The more I advanced in school, the fewer girls I met in the classroom.”
“The more I advanced in school, the fewer girls I met in the classroom,” she said, adding that she knows of girls who dropped out and got married as young as 13 or 14.
“It’s not good. School is where you learn more about yourself, about life in general and where your mind grows,” she added.
In her free time, she worked as a counsellor at the women and girl's wellness centre in the camp, run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). During their meetings, she would talk to others about the importance of going to school.
In preparation for her new studies, Raba attended online orientation sessions for two weeks. Now, she has started her English classes in Nairobi and has already settled in with two Congolese roommates in her dormitory.
Many back in Ethiopia are proud of her achievement, including Mistre Teklesilassie, IRC’s Adolescent Girl Program Officer in Tongo.
“Raba is a role model for other women and girls in the camp,” she said. “We have four girls who will take the finals next year and her success has really inspired them.”