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Mentoring Refugee Students from Across the World… via Facebook

Today, Facebook is more than just a platform to keep up with family and friends. It is also connecting people with valuable resources, including those willing to help others learn in places where schools don’t exist. In this installment of Digital Diversity, we see how humanitarian organisations are using the power of social media to...

Today, Facebook is more than just a platform to keep up with family and friends. It is also connecting people with valuable resources, including those willing to help others learn in places where schools don’t exist. In this installment of Digital Diversity, we see how humanitarian organisations are using the power of social media to make this happen, one student at a time.

Digital-DiversityDigital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Michael Atkinson, part of our Media and Research Team. You can follow Michael on Twitter at @atkinsonmichael and at @kiwanja

By Michael Atkinson

Madiha Nasseem smiles as she hops onto Facebook, but she’s not checking out what her friends are sharing on the social network. She’s part of a group that provides mentoring to students… in the refugee camps of Dadaab in Kenya. Tonight she’ll be working with her usual small group of girls who are working hard towards certificates and degrees in one of the world’s most desperate places. “They’re shy,” she says, “but also very welcoming and nice to talk to.”

Mentoring is one of several projects conducted by the University of Toronto Refugee Alliance (UTRA), founded by Madiha. UTRA supports the work of refugee organisations, actively involving University of Toronto students. Other projects include helping refugee shelters provide language and clothing assistance, advocating healthcare coverage for local refugees, and more. The mentoring via Facebook is a collaboration with Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER), part of BHER’s new refugee educational program.

Happy to help BHER with mentoring, members of UTRA say the work has been worth it. Despite a busy schedule as a third-year medical student, Madiha makes time to talk with her new friends in Dadaab almost every day. Because of differences in time zones and schedules, most communication is asynchronous and conversations can span days as some answer immediately and others (especially students without phones) are delayed in replying.

Mentoring students in Kenya over social networking site Facebook. (Photo courtesy Madiha Nasseem)
Mentoring students in Kenya over social networking site Facebook. (Photo courtesy Madiha Nasseem)

Currently the mentoring is organised as a large open group for all mentors and mentees, and smaller private groups such as Madiha’s group of three refugee students. The large group discussions, open to all students and mentors, provide dialogue and advice about things such as how to do research, English language resources, and handling time pressures in post-secondary education. In addition, discussions turn to safety concerns for the students. “For example,” Madiha says, “if there is a United Nations car that gets abducted, students discuss that out of fear and concern. Also, if there is a rise in rapes around the region, students voice that concern as well.”

The smaller, private groups provide support that is often non-academic, but still important as the students tentatively begin school in a difficult environment. “Topics vary from information surrounding school, to politics and gender differences in the camps,” Madiha says. The conversations are wide-ranging, and when asked to elaborate on what they talk about, Madiha says:

Absolutely anything! The girls are really cool. For instance, today I talked about what people are up to for their holidays. We chat about informal things such as the weather, personal work/life balance etc., but also about more formal things such as school research assignments, how to study, political affairs, and violence in the camps. From students interested in medicine and healthcare, I get a lot of questions about medicine and how I study, what type of patients I see etc. My smaller group chat is more intimate, with a personal touch, and we talk about almost anything. Some of the girls are married, so I enjoy learning from their experiences as a wife and a student. It is however hard to get in touch with girls who do not have mobile phone access, so I can’t engage them in our conversations as equally as I would like to.

Learning for Half a Million With Little Access to Education

This type of varied mentoring support is needed because of the immense lack of education in the refugee camps. The camps of Dadaab, Kenya were built in the early 1990’s initially for civilians fleeing war in Somalia, and whole generations continue to grow up and live there today. Initially designed to accommodate 90,000 people, today the camps burst at the seams with almost 500,000 and growing, a situation which the United Nations describes as “dire” poverty. Refugees are banned from taking local jobs and can’t leave the camp without a permit. Once a month they stand in lines for a small dole of food and necessities. Due to the shortage of resources, there are too many students and too few schools. Only 1 out of 3 of school aged children receive formal education, with only 20% of girls in primary school and barely 2% in secondary school. People live with dreams and aspirations they’re unable to realise.

The need for education has spurred heroic action by parents, teachers and others. In 2008, local resident Shafec Abdullahi Abdi and other parents started their own school. They sold some of their food rations and went hungry in order to hire teachers and buy chalk with money they pooled. The space under a tree was their office. In 2010, a building was completed and named Waberi Secondary School. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees took note and began to fund it.

Students in class at the Daddab refugee camp. (Photo courtesy Peter Murphy)

BHER then began organising a training program for teachers (most of the few teachers in Dadaab’s schools are untrained) and others to receive college credits, certificates and degrees locally in the camps. They wanted to see them remain and serve their own communities, instead of traveling to a foreign university to not return. This involves physical classes, but also, critically, remote instruction and mentoring to inject outside expertise and resources. Because the Kenyan system is primarily English language, the instruction and support does not encounter insurmountable language translation issues. Current funding supports 400 students, including Kenyan nationals who live in communities surrounding the refugee camps.

Satisfying learning and safety needs outside the classroom are also a concern for BHER’s education. The camps are large, creating significant distances while traveling to class, and security resources (such as lighting) are sparse. BHER considers all of these issues. One official has said, “Women face additional security concerns due to risk of sexual assault and other forms of gender based violence.  We strive to minimise security risks to all our participants by offering our programs in safe and secure spaces and by carefully following all security guidelines for Dadaab set by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.”

Another way BHER is helping its students with the logistics to make attending class possible is by creating an Enabling Fund that sponsors individual students. This fund helps cover costs of transportation, food and hygienic products for a day of study. Additionally, a brilliant Indiegogo campaign is also underway to provide students solar lamps to study by. Because darkness falls at 6:00 pm in Dadaab, and most students do not have electricity in their homes, it’s difficult to study and complete coursework. This especially affects women, as men may be more able to leave their homes in the evenings to gather and study at locations with electric light. Every little lamp empowers a student to study for the duration of their years of school when outside of the classroom.

Education Delivers Two-Way Inspiration

Increasingly, technology not only delivers help for developing world countries, but receives it back again in various ways. While Silicon Valley’s Facebook enables help for students in Africa, creative Africans in turn make their own contributions back to other countries. “We’re seeing remarkable reverse-innovation,” says Wayan Vota, Technology Advisor at FHI 360’s TechLab. “Out of necessity they’ve really pioneered mobile banking in Africa, which is in many ways more convenient than a lot of what we see in North America. Ushahidi is another example: using mobile phones to crowd source local dangers (such as violence) that users are reporting, we now it for crises like natural disasters in the U.S.”

Providing inspiration is one way that Dadaab’s refugee students are giving back to those helping them learn. For Madiha, she emphasises, “The most exciting part for me as I participant in the online dialogue has been the privilege to simply interact and learn from students living in a refugee camp. Every conversation is eye-opening and humbling. It has also made me appreciate our technological advancements, as I can converse with and learn from these inspiring, intelligent students without ever physically visiting the camp myself. Basically, learning is a ‘click away.'”

It is indeed amazing to see learning in action where previously it did not exist. A bright young student named Fatumo Ali Ahmed radiated inspiration when asked why she was pursuing her education. “I’m going to be a politician. We are refugees. What brought us here as refugees is we don’t have political stability in Somalia. We are the young generation that can build our future and our country beyond. That’s why I am trying to be a politician so that I can at least do something with the problems that are current in my motherland.” For those supporting them, that sort of truly change-the-world attitude is worth crossing any border to mentor and support.

Michael AtkinsonMichael Atkinson has been an instructor and distance education designer in the private sector for 10 years. He increasingly focuses on the intersection of educational technology and populations in the developing world. You can find Michael on Twitter @atkinsonmichael and Google+

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Ken Banks
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.