Higher education opens doors for refugees in Rwanda

UNHCR’s partner Kepler provides refugees access to internationally recognized degrees and helps them transform their lives.

UNHCR’s partner Kepler University is providing higher education and American accredited university degrees to local and refugee youth in Rwanda, from a campus in Kigali as well as campus in Kiziba Refugee Camp. © UNHCR / Hector Perez

The moment you enter the white building, overlooking lush green hills on the outskirts of Kigali, you are met with the constant buzz of dynamic university campus life.

Students are scattered throughout the working areas, bent over laptops in full concentration, others are chatting in the courtyard, and teachers lecture to eager learners in packed classrooms.

The Kigali Campus of Kepler in Rwanda may look like any other university – but it has quite a profile of its own. Kepler, a longtime partner of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, provides students in Rwanda access to internationally recognized university degrees. It combines the online degrees from Southern New Hampshire University in the US with on-site learning and counseling.

In addition, Kepler has a clear, ambitious goal: For 25% of the student population to have refugee status – and they are almost there.

“Our vision is that, for our refugee learners, the degree can transform their lives. One of the huge barriers for refugees is that they don’t have any choices, but a US-accredited degree and labor-market skills are a way to get formal employment, to be able to sustain yourself, to move out of the refugee camps and make your own choices on what to do in life,” explains Ashley Haywood, Director of Refugee Programs at Kepler.

“Our vision is that, for our refugee learners, the degree can transform their lives,” says Ashley Haywood, director of Refugee programs at Kepler. © UNHCR / Hector Perez

One of the refugee students who just enrolled this fall, is 44-year old Désire Uwimana. In 2015, he and his family fled his home country Burundi due to horrible conditions – destruction and killings that continue to haunt him. But now, enrolled in Kepler, he’s trying to focus on the future:

“In the camp I joined the school with the younger children to learn English. My wife was very surprised, but I knew that it would give me an opportunity to reach higher. Now, I have a goal. This will completely transform my life. It will be a positive change,” says Désire who likes mathematics and dreams of a career in logistics.

With support from UNHCR, IKEA Foundation and Rwanda’s Ministry for Disaster Management and Refugees, Kepler expanded in 2015 with a campus in Kiziba Camp in the western part of Rwanda – the first of its kind to be located inside a refugee camp.

In addition, Kepler now offers preparatory courses in several of the Rwandan refugee camps. Here, refugees develop their English skills and vocational know-how to prepare them to meet the higher education requirements at Kepler, or to take on the next step if they’re not admitted.

The results are striking. With a little extra help to get them started, the refugee students are thriving. At the same level as their local peers, they benefit from Kepler’s overarching focus on employment and helping graduates find real jobs afterwards.

“Currently, almost 90% of our graduates are employed within six months of graduation, and we find that refugee students in general have the same outcomes. Often, they need extra preparation in the beginning in order to succeed, but once they get that, their statistics for graduating are the same, and we have some early indications that their employment rates will also be the same,” says director Ashley Haywood, praising the progressive policies in Rwanda which allow refugees the right to work.

One of the young and hopeful soon-to-graduate students is 23 year old Eugenie Manirafasha. She has been a refugee for almost her whole life, fleeing the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a very young child and living with her family in Kiziba camp for more than 20 years.

23-year old Eugenie Manirafasha fled her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with her family when she was only 18 months old and has lived almost her entire life in the Kiziba Refugee Camp in Rwanda. But now, soon graduating in business and communication from Kepler, she has big dreams for her future. © UNHCR / Hector Perez

When she graduated high school in the camp, together with 600 other young Congolese refugees, she was among the 25 who were accepted to Kepler. Now, she will soon be holding a degree in communication and business.

“I never thought that I could go to university or that as a refugee I could get that chance,” she says.

“Education is really helpful in my life, because I can see how this degree can open doors for me. I can do so many other things and get different jobs that I didn’t think I could get before. And I have a much stronger confidence now,” says Eugenie.

She has big ambitions for the future – not only does she aim to support both herself, her parents and her siblings, she also has ideas on how to help the refugee community in the camp where she grew up.  By connecting the artisans, seamstresses and other entrepreneurs inside the camp to the outside market, she wants to help their products reach a larger audience so they can earn a better living.

“Higher education has changed the way I see the world. And the future I was looking towards a few years ago is totally different from the way I see it now,” states Eugenie.