From camp to campus

Refugee student beating the odds through education

November 2, 2016

© UNHCR / Siegfried Modola

Esther smiles wistfully as she recalls her days growing up in Juba, South Sudan. “I did not understand the war or why people were fighting.”

Although her mother shielded Esther and her two older sisters from the reality, the effects of their homeland’s brutal civil war, which killed their father shortly before Esther was born, were ultimately too dangerous to endure. When Esther was 10, the family fled South Sudan with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

My mother decided to move from that place for our own safety – you might never know when you would die.

In 2009, the family reached the UNHCR-supported Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya by a circuitous route through Uganda and Nairobi. Knowing school was the only way forward for her daughters, Esther’s mother made sure they resumed their studies at Kakuma. As Esther explained, “In spite of my mom being illiterate or never going to school, she has always told us how school is important. She wanted better lives for us. She never wanted us to live a life that we will regret in the future. She just wanted the best for us.”

At the camp, primary school was challenging because classes were taught in English, which Esther did not speak in South Sudan. The other students teased her, but in a matter of months Esther learned both English and Swahili and was flourishing. She eventually was able to secure one of the few available spots for high school students and, once enrolled at the Morneau Shepell Secondary School for Girls, she quickly picked up where she left off. Not only is she now at the top of her class, but she has a mission to fight against traditions that consign women to domestic roles.

I want to break the record and prove that girls have a future.

Esther is setting her sights on returning to her home country and becoming a neurosurgeon, even though the odds are against her: only one percent of refugee children achieve more than a high school education. She recognizes the long road ahead, but is resolute.

I want to be the girl that made it from the camp to campus, and from a refugee to a neurosurgeon.

In addition to being an inspiration herself, Esther has a role model of her own — her sister, Theresa, who won a university scholarship.

To break the cycle of poverty and despair, refugee youth must have access to education. With generous donor support, the UN Refugee Agency is determined to help educate as many children and young people as possible — from South Sudan, to Syria, Europe, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and crisis points all over the world.

Here’s how you can help …
By becoming a USA for UNHCR monthly donor, you can provide education, food, shelter and medical care to refugees like Esther and her family every day of the year in every corner of the world. Start making a lifesaving difference with a monthly gift today.