Journalist and former refugee wins UNHCR’s Nansen Award for championing refugee education in Kenya
When Abdullahi Mire first arrived in Dadaab refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya at the age of three, he was fascinated with the letters and words he saw on billboards and on the plastic sheets that covered his family’s makeshift shelter.
“I was a curious child. I was eager to learn how to read the alphabet,” he recalls.
It was 1991 and his family had just settled in the camp after fleeing the civil war in Somalia. Rival clan militias had overrun their hometown of Qoryooley, in southern Somalia, forcing residents to flee the flourishing agricultural town.
Mire’s parents hoped to return home after a short period. They never imagined that Dadaab would become their home for more than two decades – or that it would help shape their young son into a respected journalist and an award-winning refugee advocate.
Growing up in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, Mire quickly grasped that education offered a way out of the challenges of camp life.
“The first day in school was exciting,” he says. “From the word go I knew what I wanted. I knew this [new] page I was starting in school was something that would change my life… My journey started from there.”
After completing high school, he won a competitive scholarship to study public relations at Kenyatta University’s satellite campus in Dadaab. But after graduating from university, he did not turn his back on other young refugees in the camp with their own hopes and potential. He set up the Refugee Youth Education Hub (RYEH), a refugee-led organization that supports refugee students with books and other learning materials.
RYEH has since supplied over 100,000 books donated by education charities and former Dadaab refugees living in the diaspora to support schools in the camp and to establish three public libraries.
The organization also advocates for the socio-economic inclusion of refugees in Kenya and supports refugee women in the camp to access livelihoods and job opportunities.
In recognition of his innovative campaign to champion refugee education in Kenya, Mire has been selected as the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award’s 2023 Global Laureate. Given annually, the prestigious award honours those who have gone above and beyond to help forcibly displaced or stateless people.
“I never thought I would achieve this milestone,” Mire says. “I dedicate this award to every displaced child who, like me, was forced to flee their home. This is to give them hope and a reason to keep dreaming.”
According to UNHCR’s latest education report, more than half of the world’s nearly 15 million school-aged refugee children remain out of formal education.
In Dadaab, where over half the population of 370,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are children, only 58 per cent attend schools in the camp due to a shortage of qualified teachers and socio-cultural barriers including early marriage.
As soon as Mire graduated from university, he began using his skills to report stories about his fellow refugees in the camp which were published by international media outlets including Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse (AFP). “I became the voice of my community,” he says.
In 2017, while he was on a reporting assignment in Hagadera secondary school, one of the six secondary schools in Dadaab, Mire was approached by a young female student who told him about the dire need for books in the camp, particularly for girls.
“Her name was Hodan Bashir,” he says. “I remember, she was very shy but determined to tell me the challenges she was facing. She told me that her dream was to become a doctor, but the fact that she shared one biology book with 15 other girls was very disappointing.”
Dadaab book drive
Inspired by her story, Mire started a drive to collect books for schools in the camp. Using social media and mobilizing his networks, including with members of the Somali diaspora, he managed to collect more than 20,000 books in the campaign’s first phase.
Hodan was one of the first students to receive some of the donated books. She is now working as a trainee nurse in the maternity ward at the camp’s main hospital, pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor.
“My vision is to help every child in the camp achieve their dreams through education.”
“It all started with that one biology book,” she says. “I got that book because my brother Abdullahi Mire assisted me … He gave me advice that I read this book so that I [could] get a good grade and reach my ambition and now I am here, helping the mothers and babies.”
The book drive attracted support from high-profile figures, including Mohamed Ali Nur, the former Somalia Ambassador to Kenya.
“Abdullahi was one of the active youth leaders who used to welcome me to Dadaab whenever I visited during my tenure,” Nur recalls. “He is a model of how refugees can take a leading role in bringing about solutions if given the opportunity to do so. He has made a huge impact with minimal resources.”
In 2020, RYEH won the UNHCR NGO Innovation Award for its work helping students continue learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, and providing vital information about the virus through a weekly radio show.
Working on a zero budget, Mire spends long hours mobilizing volunteers and organizing fundraising events. He uses his connections to fiercely advocate for refugee-led organizations to have meaningful participation in decision-making processes.
Mire’s ultimate goal is to put a book in the hands of every child in Dadaab.
“In the camp, everything is temporary. The only thing that is a passport out of the challenges is education,” he says. “My vision is to help every child in the camp achieve their dreams through education.”
“It all started with that one biology book.”