“We are physically in exile, but our brains are not”

After being forced to flee his home country and loosing family members, returning to university gave Nixon Raphael back his hope for the future. He has received a scholarship with support from UNHCR and contributions from Denmark.

When Nixon Raphael was forced to leave his home country South Sudan in February 2014, it was the second time in his life that he became a refugee – and as the conflict also interrupted his possibilities to continue his studies in medicine, it truly deprived him of hope and spirit.

“My dream was to become a doctor to help this new nation. My country. I wanted to be a gynecologist, because in South Sudan there is a very high infant and maternity mortality, so in this way I would be able to help and contribute. It was so sad to be forced to leave again,” says Nixon.

Growing up, and for 17 years of his life, he and his family were living in exile in Uganda, but were then repatriated to their home region, which is now South Sudan. When Nixon was forced to flee again, his life was in grave danger, he explains, as he was one of the whistle blowers, testifying about the crimes and atrocities committed in South Sudan.

“My family was assassinated. I’m now the only boy left in my family,” he says.

Nixon is sharing his story sitting at a bench in the café at the large, buzzling campus of University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia – and it’s a story of exile and hardship, but also one filled with so much ambition, drive and resilience.

He came to Ethiopia six years ago, and to begin with he was living in Sherkole Refugee Camp close to the border with Sudan and South Sudan. But now, 31 year old Nixon will soon be graduating as a pharmacist from the University of Addis Ababa.

“I was very depressed before. I lost my family members. I lost my hope of becoming a doctor. But the scholarship to join university gave me back hope to look at the future with energy and optimism. My parents are illiterate, and I will be the first person in the family to graduate from university.”

Nixon is one of the approximately 1,400 refugees currently enrolled in tertiary education in Ethiopia – one of the largest refugee hosting countries in Africa, home to refugees from mainly South Sudan, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia.

”As refugees we have lost all that we have, but the one thing that can give us back hope is when we can be educated.”

In Ethiopia, two programs offer scholarships to tertiary education for refugees. They are both facilitated by the Government and linked to the country’s progressive “Out of camp”-policy. One is financially supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, via contributions from Denmark, supporting 622 students in the 19/20 academic year.

The other is supported by the so-called DAFI-program, which is mostly funded by the German government and currently supporting 815 refugee students in Ethiopia. At the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, Denmark pledged to contribute and partner with Germany in supporting the DAFI-program, allowing for even more refugee youth to access scholarships and continue their education.

The need for expanding and diversifying scholarship opportunities to tertiary education for forcibly displaced youth is obvious and urgent as more refugees are graduating from secondary education. Today, only three percent of refugee youth globally have access to tertiary education, compared to 37 percent of their peers. Figures that UNHCR and partners are determined and committed to improve and so recently adopting the ambitious “15by30”-strategy. The aim is to ensure that 15 percent of refugees have access to higher education by 2030.

To Nixon Raphael, there is no doubt that education is very important to refugees and the outlook to rebuild their home countries at some point:

”As refugees we have lost all that we have, but the one thing that can give us back hope is when we can be educated. If refugees are educated, they will become the best leaders, because they have experienced conflict, they have endured every form of hardship, and they will never want anybody to be in the same situation, so they will fight for peaceful and durable solutions.”

The soon-to-be graduate is deeply involved himself in advocating for refugee education and encouraging refugee children to pursue school. He is the Refugee Youth Coordinator at the University as well as the Representative of the Refugee Youth to the United Nations’ Economic Committee for Africa, here tasked with contributing to programs that will empower refugee children in the country.

Each year he arranges a trip for his fellow students from the different health departments to visit one of the refugee camps in the country. The purpose is for his peers to learn about the refugee situation and see how people are living in the camps as well as to provide voluntary services in health care centers. But he also wants to inspire the children in the camp.

“I wanted to show those young refugees what I have become, as a way to give them hope and mentor them to follow their own ambitions. I want them to seek education to get skills and become self-reliant,” he says.

“Being a refugee is not a limit. We are physically in exile, but our brains are not. We can train it and engage it.”

For the future after his graduation, Nixon dreams of engaging in programs to promote education in the camps even further. And also, hopefully, to return home when it’s safe again:

“Honestly, I really want to go back to my country and contribute, perhaps become a leader in the health system. I can’t be a refugee forever. But it’s still unsafe for me.”

Volunteer group 2

Nixon with the group of volunteer students who participated in the trip he arranged to visit and provide health care in the Sherkole Refugee Camp. Photo: Private.

Nixon 2

“I wanted to show those young refugees what I have become, as a way to give them hope and mentor them to follow their own ambitions. I want them to seek education to get skills and become self-reliant,” says Nixon Raphael, refugee from South Sudan and currently a student at University of Addis Ababa. © UNHCR / Elisabeth Arnsdorf Haslund

Nixon m venner

Nixon with three of his fellow students, providing free health care at one of the health care centers in Sherkole Refugee Camp, where he spent several years himself, when he first arrived in Ethiopia as a refugee. Photo: Private


Nixon has been elected Representative of the Refugee Youth to the United Nations Economic Committee for Africa (UNECA) as well as United Nations’ Youth Advisory Board Ethiopia. Photo: Private.