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Thanks for the classrooms; now we need computers, say refugee students

Thanks for the classrooms; now we need computers, say refugee students

15 March 2006
The UN refugee agency's Council of Business Leaders, on a visit to refugee projects in East Africa and the Great Lakes, heard Tuesday from Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, that they prize education above almost anything else, and would love a chance to use computers to connect to the wider world.
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DADAAB, Kenya, Mar 15 (UNHCR) - Paul Parach Majak is a 21-year-old Somali with a passion for geography. But as seventh-grader at an underfunded, overcrowded refugee camp primary school with one desk for every eight pupils and one textbook for every six, Paul doesn't have much chance to learn about foreign countries, never mind visit one.

"This is my world," he says, gesturing outside his classroom's open wire windows to the desert that's been his home for nearly half his life. "How will I be able to hear about the world outside here?"

The question was directed at visiting top executives from five of the world's leading corporations who make up the UN refugee agency's Council of Business Leaders (CBL), now on a trip to East Africa and the Great Lakes. An answer to Paul's question came from a representative of the world's leading computer-software company.

"It is essential that you get access to technology and an appropriate curriculum, so you can discover the world beyond these borders," said Patrick De Smedt, Chairman of Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa. "I am here learning what your needs are and we are committed to helping you cross these borders."

The 127,000 refugees in the three camps of Dadaab, in eastern Kenya, include huge numbers of young people with a thirst for computers, as the visiting executives found out Tuesday. Mixed with frequent thanks for assistance to schools given by sporting goods manufacturer Nike Inc., another member of the CBL, were pleas for computer education and access to the internet.

"Information is power and lack of it is lack of power," an articulate 24-year-old refugee youth leader, Noor Abdi Ali, told the Council of Business

Leaders. who are led by UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner, Wendy Chamberlin.

While admitting that he himself had only "a very basic knowledge" of computers, Noor said refugees are crying out for computer literacy and an internet connection that would allow them to earn degrees online and to express their views of the Somali peace process to the leaders of Somalia's new transitional government.

This view was underlined by another young Somali refugee who said: "peace will one day prevail in my country and I will be the future of my country."

Added another young man, who has been a refugee since 1992, almost all his life: "Some of us may become presidents and prime ministers of our own country."

"I am impressed with your positivism and your attitude towards the future," responded De Smedt.

Some 57 young refugees, including 10 women, are taking their first steps towards computer literacy at the Sky Institute, a tiny computer school with four desktop machines located in the market of Ifo Camp, one of the three camps that make up the Dadaab complex. The "institute" is barely the size of a small bedroom in a North American or European apartment, but when the CBL executives visited, students were busy at work learning to type on a keyboard, two students sharing each computer, taking their first steps towards more complex training.

"It's a service to the youth, it's not much of a business," said manager Jibriil Ibrahim Ahmed. Still, in the four years it's been in operation, it's graduated about 350 students, some of whom have found paying jobs with non-governmental organizations in the camp thanks to their computer skills.

But for much of the day, the emphasis was on much more rudimentary aids to education - a privilege that is so prized here that even a 21-year-old like geography fan Paul doesn't mind being in Form 7 (seventh grade) at his age.

Girls, who make up about 20 percent of the pupils at Midnimo Primary School in Ifo Camp, thanked Nike for erecting latrines. The privacy this gives them makes the girls far more willing to attend classes.

Sportswear manufacturer Nike has also built classrooms for the school, helping to bring the number of pupils in each class down from 112 to 45, and has supplied textbooks and writing materials.

"Any support from Nike and other companies will have a very positive effect on our lives and is highly appreciated," a student told the executives. In Dadaab, Nike also funds Together for Girls, a sports program that encourages girls to stay in school.

The Council of Business Leaders, which also includes representatives of pharmaceutical company Merck Inc., accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers and employment agency Manpower Inc, was set up last year to build bridges between the corporate and humanitarian communities.

On this trip they are visiting refugee camps and learning more about UNHCR's work in East Africa and the Great Lakes, as well as seeing for themselves the impact of their involvement on the daily life of refugees.

By Kitty McKinsey
In Dadaab, Kenya