Refugee learners defy ravages of war to conquer science

Auxilio Onorio and Pal Chol Thot explain their improvised voting system at their Brightstar Integrated Secondary School, Kalobeyei in Turkana County on June 21, 2024. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Seeking asylum in Kenya was heartbreaking for Khor Wiyual.

He was barely 11 years old when he was forced to flee South Sudan following the outbreak of a civil war. The world that he knew crumbled.

While things have since simmered down in the world’s youngest nation, education remains his only hope for a bright future, now that he is away from home.

Meet the convivial 21-year-old, now preparing to pursue his dream career of becoming a doctor abroad, thanks to his sharp academic acumen.

Wiyual sat for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) last year, and garnered a mean grade of A- (minus), with clean As in science subjects (Mathematics, biology and chemistry).

“I was so demoralised settling at the camp as a young boy. I was traumatised. But I am happy that the struggles did not dictate my career path,” says Wiyual.

 The former student at Vision Secondary school attributes the score to dedicated teachers who emphasised Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programme.

The science contests the school participated in also challenged Wiyual to put more efforts in doing well in science subjects, sharpening his understanding of the subjects by learning from other students and teachers.

“Science teachers inspired me to put more effort into getting good grades, and gradually, I developed interest. I am happy my efforts bore fruits,” adds Wiyual.

As he steps out of school, he is optimistic he will leave a footprint in the sands of medicine, by getting solutions to diseases affecting people, more so in his native South Sudan.

In his mind is his mother, who has been ailing from a foot disease for decades.

“My mother inspires me to study medicine. I grew up seeing her battle foot disease. It pains me more that since we parted ways, I have never seen or heard from her because she resides in an area with poor network connectivity.,”

He recalls, "I long for the day I will meet her, having pursued my ambitions. I want to make her proud".

As they fled for safety, he left her at a hospital where she had sought refuge and treatment. His father was trapped in a different town.

The availability of laboratory and reagents supported by prospects also enabled him and other learners to familiarise themselves with practical science, the knowledge they applied during national exams.

In a world where refugees are neither seen nor heard, Wiyual is one of the many bright students who have chosen not to allow troubled times to take away their peace nor dreams for a better tomorrow.

Education support for refugee learners at the camp is provided through Prospects.

Prospects is a partnership involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Kenyan Government, UNICEF, UNHCR, International Labour Organization.

The Partnership is a multiannual humanitarian-development initiative aimed at transforming how host governments and other stakeholders respond to situations of forced displacement.

Serah Musengya, an Education Officer with UNICEF Kenya, explains that the partnership aims to enhance an enabling environment for socio-economic inclusion for forcibly displaced persons, through education, employment, protection, and critical infrastructure, to build self-reliance and overall resilience.

Within the neighbourhood is Anisa Abdullahi. She is also living the pride and joy of having excelled in science subjects, a score that will enable her enroll to a medical school to pursue her dream career of being a nurse.

The 19-year-old former student of Tumaini Girls School demystified the long-held belief that only boys do well in science subjects while girls excel in languages.

“I do not believe in myths that STEM subjects are difficult, and that only boys excel. I scored a Grade of B+, and had A in biology, B in mathematics and B+ in chemistry. Is that not a good score for a girl who I am?,” Poses Abdullahi.

Abdullahi developed an interest in science subjects while in Form One.

“I wanted to do well as a career woman, and therefore needed to perform well, and so I did.”

She adds, “I will tell girls to develop a positive mindset. Everything comes with attitude. We need to stop stereotypes, and work towards performing well”.

Abdullahi’s mother fled from Somalia to Kenya in 2005 due to clan skirmishes, while carrying her pregnancy, and delivered her same year in Kenya.

 “I have fought many battles ranging from being a refugee, a Somali and a Female. People said refugees do not perform well, and that Somalis are business oriented and cannot do well in academics.

I was also told that females do not perform well in academics. But I gave a deaf ear, and worked towards the goal of excelling. I did it,” she declares.

“I am proud because I studied in a tough environment, tough conditions and I made it,” she adds.

She acknowledges support from teachers, UNICEF and partners for supporting learners with resources like study materials, and equipping laboratories.

However, she observes the need to have more teachers deployed to the school.

“For instance, we do not have physics, geography, computer, agriculture and home science subjects because of a lack of teachers, yet they give students a wide range of career choices," she pleads. 

Josephine Nguta, the school’s Principal, says the school, established in 2014, provides safe space for refugee learners.

It nurtures both education and talent among learners.

“Most of the learners are coming from war-torn countries and need psychological support to enable them to easily concentrate with academics,” says Nguta.

“Some are battling (effects of) sexual gender based violence, and therefore need our support”.

The school has a total of 377 learners, all under Elimu Sponsorship.

Serah Musengya, an Education Officer with UNICEF Kenya, notes that refugees at the camp are supported by prospect partnership that leverage on comparative advantages and synergies to enhance quality education and protection of refugees and host communities.

The prospects' partnership support education and learning, by acclamation within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Kakuma and Dadaab Refugees camp.

The program, established in 2020, is aimed at improving learning outcomes in science subjects within the refugee camp and the surrounding host community.

Musengya notes that targeted intra and inter-school competitions have led to the exchange of ideas with top students from other schools in the region, sparking interest in STEM subjects that has seen more students score excellent grades in science subjects.

“With STEM, students, more so girls, post excellent grades in biology, although some still struggle with physics and mathematics,” says Musengya.

At least 45 STEM Kenyan teachers have been deployed to respective secondary schools within the camp and host community.

So far, the programme has benefited over 26,000 students in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, among them 9,200 girls and children with disabilities.

Several institutions, among them the Centre for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA), Ministry of Education and its Semi-autonomous Government Agencies, have been engaged in the development of STEM strategy and STEM policy to promote inclusive, relevant quality STEM education in the country.

Plans are also underway to scale the STEM program in hosting secondary schools, by supporting refugee students accommodated within the hosting secondary schools in Turkana and Garissa countries.

At least 15 secondary schools under the Kenya Primary Education Equity in Learning (KPEEEL) have been identified in plans to scale up STEM education in Turkana and Garissa counties.

STEM programme learners come up with scientific innovations to improve a course outside the classroom.

At Brightstar Integrated Secondary school, students are busy with exploring scientific innovation ideas.

Among the innovations is the use of sugarcane rind to make a modern fibre box.

The innovation is meant aimed at reducing environmental pollution and deforestation at the time Kenya, the continent and the globe living the harsh realities of climate change.

“Fibre boards from used sugarcane are used in making ceilings, kitchen chopping boards, laboratory stool boards among other,” explains Uwizeye Esperance, owner of the idea, together with John Lokang.

“Sugar remains are crushed into pieces, then grind them into finer particles,” Lokang explains about the production process.

After getting finer articles, the specimen is mixed on a basic surface, levelled, and further taken to a compression machine to be compacted.

“We came up with the project because we want to reduce environmental pollution and deforestation,” adds Esperance.

She adds, “After chewing sugarcane, the waste is dumped all over the surface, yet it can be recycled. The product is very strong, and we have tested its heat conductivity which is minimal, and can be used for ceilings in hot places like Turkana to bring a cooling effect in houses.”

To scale up the innovation, the learners call on support from individuals and donors.

Pal Thot and Auxillion Onorio are also helpful to support the online voting system project.

The learners use Google Form Technology for voting, which delivers results fast, as compared to manual voting.

With outcry of voter irregularities in Kenya and other countries, the students say the technology can be adopted for transparency and efficiency.

“Refugee learners benefit from the best innovative practices. We also make learning attractive to them,” Turkana County Education Director Henry Lubanga says.