Mark Okello Oyat and four of his fellow students at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya are waiting for the pandemic to wind down before celebrating their new master’s degrees in style, but the thrill is still present among the members of the first cohort of Dadaab students to earn York University graduate degrees, which will be awarded in June.
“I am so happy to be able to accomplish my graduate studies,” Okello Oyat said from Kenya via Zoom during a recent interview. “We are breaking the paradigm for refugees living in an encampment. It is a unique thing that Professor Don Dippo, from the Faculty of Education, has done.”
The master’s degree in education is part of a continuum of postsecondary programs that Dippo and his colleagues have established at Dadaab as part of the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project, a series that begins with a university preparation program, followed by certificate and diploma programs, bachelor’s degree programs and now, the master’s degree. The first BHER program, university preparation, began in Dadaab in 2013.
The programs are an effort to offer “gender equitable teacher education programs to working, untrained teachers who are already contributing back to the community, increasing and improving education in the camps overall.” The University of British Columbia, Kenyatta University and Moi University are partners in the BHER program.
Until a few years ago, a bachelor’s degree was the most the students could hope to earn at Dadaab, which is actually a collection of five refugee camps in northeast Kenya. However, they were eager for more opportunity.
“The students started lobbying for a master’s degree program by the second year of their bachelor’s program,” said Dippo. “This was not part of the original BHER project design but there were students in Dadaab who were capable and persistent, so I discussed the matter with Dean Lyndon Martin and Graduate Program Director Qiang Zha. It was the willingness of my colleagues in the graduate program to open their courses to distance participation that made the MEd program in Dadaab possible.”
The program began with seven students in 2018 and admitted 12 more students in 2019, a total of 19 students, seven of whom are women. Like all York students, they have student ID cards and access to Moodle and Zoom and the York University Libraries. They study in the same courses as their Toronto master’s degree in education studies peers and meet with them periodically over Zoom.
From September to December and January to April, the Dadaab students have tutorials and take online courses meeting for tutorial sessions on Fridays and Saturdays. They gather at the learning centre at Dadaab at 3 p.m., while their York professors and teaching assistants, given the time difference, are in the virtual classroom at 7 a.m. Students in Toronto have an open invitation to join in for tutorials.
“We do get Toronto students in the Zoom tutorials on Fridays and Saturdays,” said Dippo. “During the pandemic self-isolation, more students are joining in.”
During the fall and winter semesters, BHER students work as teachers in the camps and study online over the weekends. In April, August and December, the months when the students have no teaching responsibilities, their York professors and teaching assistants travel to Dadaab to offer intensive, in-person courses.
“These on-site courses are really valuable, because the instructors actually get a chance to meet the students, making the program more personal,” said HaEun Kim, York’s BHER program administrator.
“With this graduate degree, the students will be eligible to apply for teaching positions at many post-secondary institutions in Kenya, Somalia and other parts of Africa,” Dippo said. “We have established a good working relationship with the Somali National University (SNU) in Mogadishu and have had many discussions with the Dean at SNU’s Faculty of Education and Social Sciences, Fouzia Warsame, about the valuable contributions our graduates will make to efforts to rebuild public education in Somalia in the aftermath of the civil war.”
“Many BHER graduates have returned to Somalia. They are like their own alumni association,” he said. “This group of students has come together, learned from each other, and has become committed to each other and supported each other’s successes. They are interested in improving the quality of education for refugees, internally displaced people and others whose lives have been affected by conflict and rebuilding national education programs.
“It’s their achievement, their aspirations and their commitment to their communities and to a peaceful and prosperous future that keeps us coming back to Dadaab. Our students inspire us.”
Kim noted, “If it weren’t for BHER classes, many of our students may not have had the opportunity to come together. The camps themselves tend to be regionally divided with different communities often keeping to themselves. This is a pan-African group of students from many nations, language groups, religions and cultures, with both men and women studying together. This community of learners has been fostered and strengthened over time and that’s no small achievement.”
The master’s degree graduates are also contributing to emerging African scholarship in the field of refugee and forced migration studies. Dippo and his colleagues, including Professors Nombuso Dlamini, Steve Alsop and Kurt Thumlert from the Faculty of Education, have ensured that the cohort has experience presenting at scholarly conferences and publishing their research. The graduating cohort made a Zoom presentation last year at the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (CARFMS) at York University and the lecture hall in Toronto was full at 7 a.m. The graduating cohort of master’s students have also co-authored articles published in two issues of Oxford University’s Forced Migration Review.
“We want to encourage them to continue to research, write and present in a field where they are really underrepresented,” Dippo said.
These students are also role models for others at the camps. “Retention rates in high schools in Dadaab are higher because the students know that if they graduate, they can continue on with their studies while staying connected to their families and their communities living in the camps,” Dippo said. “The women students in BHER programs also show others that it is possible to have a family and to continue your education.”
Ochan Leomoi, one of the students in the cohort set to graduate, continues giving back to the community.
“Currently, I am teaching the vulnerable children in Safe Haven, a protected space, and also assisting Borderless Higher Education for Refugee course directors in teaching and mentoring the students in this project,” he said.
His classmate, Okello Oyat, is dreaming about doing a PhD next, but he also sees himself making a difference in lives in Dadaab.
“We will be able to change a lot of lives and situations in the Horn of Africa,” he said. “The community here has a lot of challenges, and we’ll be able to use what we’ve learned to drive change here. As refugees, there is a lot we need to do to improve our quality of life.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus