My Journey: How education helps refugee girls break the cycle of hardship
There have been devastating hardships – including the loss of my father during high school exams, the constant struggles to pay school fees, and the continual pressure to consent to forced marriages – as well as hope, and opportunities.
I believe sharing my experiences can empower other refugee girls who face challenges and setbacks like mine, and who can discover that education is the key to transforming your life, breaking free from societal constraints, and charting your own path.
As a child growing up in South Sudan, I knew no life beyond cattle. My father had a large herd of cows and we were always on the move in search of pasture and water. But there was war too and as the fighting became more intense, I was sent to the capital Juba with other young children.
I was only 12 years old, but according to tradition I would soon be married and there were already four men waiting in line. Luckily for me, my aunt was going to Kenya to seek safety from the conflict, and my father let me go with her to help with household chores. At that time, education was not even a dream of mine.
It took three days on a lorry loaded with soda crates to reach Kakuma refugee camp and from there we went to Eldoret. I remember my arrival date vividly: it was a Sunday morning, 10 a.m., on 13 July 2008.
When I enrolled in primary school a year later, I was the oldest in my class, could only speak my mother tongue, did not know how to write my name, and could not even count to 10! But I was determined and worked hard and soon caught up. By the end of the year I was top of my class.
As the crisis in South Sudan worsened, financial constraints made it hard to continue paying school fees, while the social and cultural pressure to marry became unbearable as I grew through my teenage years – I would come home from school to find numerous men having visited my aunt seeking to marry me – but I wished to continue my education.
One man volunteered to pay my school fees, and I felt I had found someone who really cared about my studies, but then he told me I would have to marry him in return. I felt betrayed and cheated, and rejected his bargain, although sometimes I felt it would be easier just to be married and have someone provide for me. Through a church group, I was able to find a sponsor and worked hard through high school, but just before national exams my father got sick, his health worsening with each passing day. Losing my father was a devastating blow.
I had no one to hold me up. In the midst of my grief, I summoned all of my strength to honour his memory and finish my exams successfully.
"The social and cultural pressure to marry became unbearable."
As I looked to the future after school and the dream of university, scholarships offered a glimmer of hope in providing financial support and shielding young refugee girls like me from forced marriages, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everything was delayed.
I had always wanted to improve the justice system in my country of South Sudan, so I applied to study law at the University of Nairobi. Halfway through my first year, I heard about the DAFI scholarship* on social media. I immediately applied and was lucky to be selected. The scholarship has given me peace of mind, knowing my fees will be paid, and it has freed me from the idea that someone would demand something in return for my education.
Last year I was elected President of the University of Nairobi Students Association, becoming the first-ever female refugee to hold the post. In that role, I am advocating for increased financial support for refugee students and for greater kindness, because we refugees have all suffered hostility and trauma in our lives.
My personal journey exemplifies the resilience and determination of refugee girls and shows that by empowering us through education we can break the cycle of hardship and provide a path towards a brighter future. If you seize every opportunity, no one and nothing can hinder you from achieving what you want.
* The DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) scholarship programme offers qualified refugee and returnee students the possibility to earn an undergraduate degree in their country of asylum or home country.
Monicah's story is published in the 2023 UNHCR Refugee Education Report, which compiles data from more than 70 countries to provide the clearest picture yet of the state of refugee education and enrollment globally.
"The scholarship... freed me from the idea that someone would demand something in return for my education."