Moving forward, and a video

During our last week in Dadaab, HaEun made a video for our students as a gift. It captures and highlights the fun memories we all had together.  The students loved it, and we hope you’ll enjoy it too!

The friendships we made in Dadaab have left a lasting impression on us. We have both decided to focus our research on refugee education and we hope to share the stories of not only our students, but our friends. This December, we are planning to return to Dadaab to support our students as they begin their new degree/certificate programs at York University, University of British Columbia, Kenyatta University, and Moi University. We hope that through higher education, our students and others in similar situations will be able to gain opportunities to move forward beyond the limbo of camps. 

Class of 2016


Lingering thoughts


Students working in the shade of a tree at the BHER Learning Centre on a hot afternoon

Growing up my parents would constantly share how important it is for my siblings and I to gain an education. They would share the challenges they had to overcome growing up in Somalia, in order to achieve a higher education. My father would share how he and his friends would study under trees during the day—under the shade from the sun and better than their homes that were not equipped with study spaces. In the evenings they would study in public parks where there would be streetlights. As a kid, I never took their stories seriously and even found them to be farfetched. As I watched students studying in Dadaab under trees, it reminded me of my parents’ narratives. I felt a sense of overwhelming guilt and shame and around the 4th week of our time in Dadaab, I sent my parents a long email, sharing with them my gratitude for the opportunities they have provided me with. Their fight for higher education has paved the path of my road to higher education. Upon my return, I shared with my parents the obstacles that I saw in Dadaab and how I met students who reminded me of their experience growing up and who were working under harsh circumstances for an education. My dad shared with me that Somalis have always viewed education as a means to improve their situation and to move forward. Working with BHER and assisting our students to the best of our abilities, has reminded me of how powerful education can be and I believe this project will pave an alternative path towards achieving a higher education within an emergency zone.

Kheyro dreamed now of university, diplomas, of Nairobi, Canada and even London. But the road to further education ran through Dadaab, not Somalia. ‘There’s nothing for me there’, Kheyro said. After years of lobbying and planning, Kenyatta University in Nairobi, tried of the restrictions on refugee students who wanted to take its courses, had decided to come to them. In 2013 it opened a campus in Dadaab. A project with York University in Canada called Borderless Higher Education had also just started issuing online diplomas in the camp. When the new semester started next year, Kheyro was determined to enrol.

– Excerpt from Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns

Breaking language barriers

The first time I had heard about Dadaab was in Don’s (my supervisor) office. I had approached him in the fall to talk about a project called Success Beyond Limits when he mentioned BHER. I listened politely. Higher education for refugees? In the world’s largest refugee camp? I was intrigued, but what he was telling me was so removed from my reality that I couldn’t grasp its weight. I never thought that a couple months later, I’d be working in Dadaab as a TA.


Aerial view of Dadaab

At the beginning of April I stepped off a plane and found myself in a sweltering semi-arid desert, an environment completely removed from what I had known. But I coped with the heat, brushed off the dust (literally), followed the new rules and routines. What was more challenging for me was learning to maneuver with the people. I was working with students and staff of different languages, customs, cultures. Unlike Hawa who was raised by Somali parents and was familiar with some cultural nuances, I came from a continentally different context. We were strangers to each other, but as the weeks progressed, this gap began to vanish. There are things that speak to people beyond a mutual language and culture. Things like making the effort to listen, even if you don’t fully understand everything. Or having a genuine interest in someone’s well-being. Taking the time to remember names, receive smiles, say hello.. Making an effort to be a genuine person— it speaks volumes when you can’t say much else.

swahiliBut of course language communicates so much more, so I decided to try and learn Swahili while I was in Dadaab and it became a point of connection for me. I told the students that they were my teachers and they would take my phone, write Swahili words with English translations or record pronunciations for me. Some of my teachers were strict, others more patient. I caught glimpses of their personalities and I’m sure they saw some of mine— it was quite fun.


There were ups and downs, but looking back, Hawa and I both realized our time in Dadaab had been very special. We had made new friends and were thankful for the stories, laughs, and memories. But these connections weighed on us. The news reports, books, and research articles I read following our trip became sobering because of the people we had come to know. It is they who linger.


Dadaab 101

Dadaab is a town located in the northeastern region of Kenya, roughly 90 kilometers east from the Kenyan-Somali border. In 1992, refugee camps were established in Dadaab as a temporary shelter for 90,000 civilians fleeing the civil war in Somalia. Today, Dadaab is host to over half a million refugees, making it thelargest and oldest refugee camp in the world. The majority of its residents are Somali, as well as asylum-seekers from neighbouring African countries fleeing violence and insecurity. Today, Dadaab is divided into a complex of five refugee camps: Hagadera, Ifo 1, Ifo 2, Dagahaley, and Kambioos.

Prior to learning about all of these facts, I knew very little about Dadaab. Throughout my undergraduate and now graduate studies, I have been involved with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and I knew Dadaab only as a camp that some sponsor students use to call home. HaEun Kim and I were offered the opportunity to be teaching assistants for York University’s Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project, which aims to make educational programs available in Dadaab for refugee students. The BHER team includes of a global group of NGOs and academic institutions, that apart from York, include Kenyatta University, Moi University and the University of British Columbia, who have come together and are committed to improving the quality and accessibility of education for refugees in Dadaab.

HaEun and I have just completed TA-ing a course for the winter semester through online learning for refugee students living in the Thai-Burma border, specifically in Mae Sot. Similar to York’s BHER Project, the Australian Catholic University (ACU) offers a Diploma in Liberal Studies in Mae Sot as well as in Ranong, for refugee students who have fled persecution in Burma and ended up in refugee camps in Thailand. Professor Don Dippo, co-founder of BHER, taught the course titled Educating for a Sustainable Future: A Blended, Integrated, Multidisciplinary Approach, in which both York University students and students in Thailand were enrolled in. The blended learning approach to pedagogy allowed for students in Thailand and in Toronto to learn together and to collaborate in addressing topics presented in the course. This TA experience gave us a small glimpse into what it would be like supporting students who are receiving their education from a refugee camp.

We were set to begin our 5-week task as teaching assistants, supporting the second cohort of students enrolled in BHER’s Teaching Certificate program. We were eager to meet our students and also nervous to embark on the daunting assignment of supporting a number of students who were coming from extraordinary and difficult circumstances. Would they trust us? Would we be able to connect with them outside of the classroom? Could we provide them with the academic support and guidance necessary for them to succeed?

Hawa walking across the airstrip in Dadaab

Airstrip upon arrival in Dadaab

Upon arrival, we were hit with a wave of heat we did not feel in Nairobi. Dadaab looked nothing like I imagined—extremely dry and dusty. We were driven to the Learning Centre, a campus built in partnership between the institutions and NGOs. We received a security briefing on the security measures that are in place within the UNHCR compound, where we would be living, and the Learning Centre, where we would be supporting our students daily. We quickly learned that we would not be able to move as freely as we hoped. Every location we went to was by a UNHCR car and we would always need to carry our badges that proved we were affiliated with the BHER, in order to receive access to where we would call home and work for the next five weeks.


Over this first week working and building relationships with students in Dadaab, we can already see first hand how important higher education in emergency zones are. Higher Education provides our students with a sense of self-dignity, pride, and confidence that allows them to manufacture hope for their future—one that is filled with endless possibilities if they are able to complete a post-secondary degree. 5 weeks is a short period of time, but we akready know we will leave with stories and memories that will last us a lifetime. Through our posts we hope share our reflections on Dadaab, mobility, student experiences and what we hope for the future of higher education in emergencies.

Introducing Hawa and HaEun

Hawa Sabriye and HaEun Kim are teachers currently completing their Masters of Education at York University in Toronto, Canada.  This April, they are spending four weeks in Dadaab acting as teaching assistants for York courses offered under the BHER project. They will be blogging here about their experiences in Dadaab.

Hawa and HaEun write: We have a passion for education and investigating barriers that prevent access to higher learning—both in urban contexts such as inner-city Toronto as well as settings considered to be ‘education in emergencies.’ Our research is embedded in forced migration and refugee studies from an educational context. The purpose of this blog is to share our reflections, learnings, and future goals related to our work and experience in Dadaab, Kenya, supporting students enrolled in York University’s Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Teaching Certificate Program.


Hawa Sabriye (left) and HaEun Kim (right) at Wilson Airport in Nairobi, waiting to board the World Food Program flight to Dadaab.