Innovation: Instant Network Schools open up a new world for Somali refugees
DADAAB, Kenya, February 4 (UNHCR) - Thirty pairs of fascinated eyes watch the big white screen; fingers glide across new tablet computers. A class of students at the Nasib Secondary School in north-east Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp complex, is enjoying a history lesson about the Portuguese in Africa.
Most have spent their whole life in the arid camps of Dadaab. They have never even visited the closest Kenyan city, Garissa, which is located two hours away by road. But today they are travelling through Africa and the past - online.
Nasib is one of 13 schools or vocational training centres in Dadaab that have been connected to the Internet under an education programme launched late last year by the UN refugee agency and the Vodafone Foundation, the charitable arm of British-based telecoms group, Vodafone.
Students at these 13 ICT centres - known as "Instant Network Schools" and powered by solar energy - use Internet-enabled tablets to follow directions, pursue studies and carry out research, while their teachers use interactive whiteboards as a vital teaching aid during lessons.
Safaricom, Vodafone's affiliate in Kenya, is providing Internet connectivity, while telecoms equipment company Huawei has donated 235 tablets to the six primary schools, three secondary schools and four vocational training centres taking part in the programme.
"Classes used to be theoretical, now it is much more practical. We can see pictures, we can watch documentaries, we can learn much better," says Abdi, a student at Nasib Secondary School who fled Somalia in 1992.
Around 180,000 children in the five Dadaab refugee camps are of school age (3-17 years), con¬stituting half of the camps' population. Only around 50 per cent are enrolled in school. But UNHCR constantly strives to improve the quality of education in the camps and persuade more children to enrol.
The Instant Network Schools programme is part of that push. Teachers at Dadaab have now been trained in a range of tablet-based education programmes, enabling them to provide a better education to their pupils.
"Access to quality education is one of the things that people lose when they flee their homes," notes Leonard Zulu, UNHCR's senior protection coordinator in Dadaab. "Using the Internet is a dream in a refugee setting such as isolated Dadaab. We are grateful for this e-learning project as it has opened a window to the world for refugee students," he added.
As an incentive, students can also use the IT facilities by themselves after class. This gives them time to surf the Internet and explore the world online. "My father lives in the United States. When we get to use the Internet outside classes, I get in touch with him," a smiling 18-year-old Mohamed tells UNHCR.
The focus of the project remains firmly on the future - on developing skills that will help students to find employment. Nimo, who was born in Dadaab 18 years ago, signed on for a course in computer and secretarial skills at one of the Instant Network Schools.
"When I started the course, it was difficult for, she said, adding that she had never used a computer before. "Then I learned how to use PowerPoint and Microsoft Access." Now she's discovering a whole new world of opportunities through the Internet.
"Today, we learned how to open an e-mail account and to attach documents to an e-mail," Nimo says. "I don't know how to search for things through the Internet, but I'll learn soon. I'll learn step by step." It will stand her in good stead in the future.
By Silja Ostermann in Dadaab, Kenya