Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is an international Catholic organization dedicated to accompanying, serving, and defending people who have been forcibly displaced. With the international coordinating office in Rome, the East African regional office is located in Nairobi and supports projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan. In Kenya, there are two projects: Nairobi and Kakuma. The Nairobi office serves urban refugees and asylum seekers with scholarships and livelihoods training. The Kakuma project, where I am currently working, is located in the Kakuma refugee camp in the Turkana district of northwestern Kenya.
JRS is one of over 20 organizations working in the camp and host community. We employ approximately 20 national and international staff as well as over 330 "incentive workers." As refugees are not legally allowed to work in Kenya, they may only receive small "incentives" in return for their services. JRS Kakuma has 6 departments: mental health, counseling and alternative healing, scholarships, pastoral, protection centers, and Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins JC:HEM.
Scope of Work
I am working with JC:HEM, which is a program that offers refugees a chance to enroll in a 3 year online diploma program through Regis University in Denver, CO. Additionally, we offer Community Service Learning Tracks (CSLTs), which are 3-6 month certificate courses. Specifically, I have taken over the class of a staff member who resigned in December entitled "Training of Trainers in English Language Learning." The students are a mix of primary school teachers, informal community educators, or aspiring teachers. There are 8 nationalities represented in the class and most speak English fairly well but they struggle with writing.
While I was not hoping to teach English, I feel that it is the best fit for me as it is one of the only jobs I am qualified to do here. I have been able to get to know so many students and my role is expanding as I take on additional responsibilities in the Arrupe Education Center, where all classes are taught. I will also be providing support to the cohorts of diploma students as well as offering various workshops on computer skills, leadership development, interview tips, essay and application writing, etc. Additionally, I am hoping to collaborate with Lara in Malawi as we look at conducting an impact evaluation of the JC:HEM program on the lives of graduated students.
One of the greatest challenges so far is being able to provide adequate support to so many students from diverse backgrounds with very little resources. I was told to take over the class but I wasn't given much support in terms of curriculum or mentorship. There is such a desperate desire among students in the camp to continue their studies but without our limited funding, technology, and staff, we can only offer very specific and limited programs.
Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya
Kakuma was established in 1992 to receive Sudanese refugees. All refugee camps are supposed to be temporary centers of protection but more often than not, they become permanent prisons for seeking asylum. The environment this camp was established in is not fit for one human being, let alone over 130,000. It is a desert wasteland with no vegetation and no water -- only dust and a deadly scorching sun. Just this past week, the government has declared a state of emergency in Turkana county as drought and famine threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands. Even so, resilient people have managed to establish a life here -- planting trees, building churches and schools, opening businesses, creating art. Such development has taken over twenty years of hard work and persistence but for the newly arriving refugees from South Sudan, they are expected to live in plastic tents with no water, no shade, little food, and no opportunity for a livelihood. Kakuma has already received over 13,000 new refugees from South Sudan and more are arriving everyday. Their situation is unfathomably desperate as single mothers will arrive with ten hungry and sick children and be expected to find a way here in the desert.
Despite the war in South Sudan and ongoing in security throughout the entire East African region, the Kenyan government is taking steps to close all refugee camps within the next three years. After the signing of a tripartite commission between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Kenya, and Somalia, Somali refugees are being encouraged to repatriate back to their war-torn country. While Mogadishu has been declared safe and under control of the government, civilians still die everyday as they are caught in the crossfire of Al-Shabab and the government forces.
It seems that whenever I write or speak about Kakuma to friends and family at home, the worst parts always come out first. Despite the fact that I've only reported desperation and misery so far, I love almost every minute of being here. While I am, of course, constantly angered by injustice and often irritably hot and dirty as well, I do not wish to be anywhere else in the world right now. The friends I have made in just a few weeks have already become so precious as they open my mind daily to new perspectives and keep my heart light with laughter.
In just this past week, I have gone "reporting" with the founder of Kakuma's only independent refugee written and produced newspaper, a true champion for press freedom. I have learned and taught church songs in Swahili and English with two Congolese girls my same age. I have watched in awe the sales skills of the owner of Kakuma's own "Walmart" as he serves 6 customers at a time, speaking in all their different languages, flirting with old mamas who are trying to bargain him broke while still managing to get the price he wants. I have become deeply committed to watching a Mexican soap opera every night with all of my coworkers. I have sipped macchiatos with a former Congolese UN intelligence informant as we talk about Negritude . I have watched a screening of a refugee written-directed-acted-produced film in celebration of the production company's three-year anniversary. All of this has taken place in this dusty wasteland of a refugee camp.
On a final note, despite all the desperation and misery in this place, there is also an inspiring kind of hope for a better and different future that could and does exist here. People from 11 different nationalities, countless ethnic groups, religions, ages, and abilities live side by side and, for the most part, peacefully. They attend school and church together, they work together, and shop in one another's stores. They sit and share tea and stories and ideas about where they came from and where they could be. Imagine if peace does someday come to Sudan, to Congo, to Somalia, Burundi, Ethiopia, and throughout the region. If the residents of Kakuma are to return home, I think they will live differently than their ancestors. I think they will have learned something about intercultural communication, about peace, about the commonness of our shared humanity. I have never seen a place like this before -- even in the United States we are so divided in all of our diversity. Of course, Kakuma is hardly perfect and division and violence and misunderstanding still exist but watching my students from eight different countries interact inside and outside of, I am so hopeful that with their leadership, the world will become a better place.
The last few weeks have cemented my connection to this place and desire to continue what I’ve started. I remember as I was considering applying for IDIP I was really torn as to whether it would be the best use of my time and resources. I knew that 10 weeks was much too short for any internship -- just by the time I would start to feel like I belonged, it would be time to leave. Such a short internship also seemed like more of a burden to the organization than anything I could possibly offer in that time. Furthermore, I thought that this was not the best use of my tuition money. I had already done several internships in East Africa and figured NGOs would always be willing to take on free labor but that I would not always have a scholarship at a private university waiting for me. Certainly I should use winter quarter to get a few more economics courses under my belt and then I could sell my soul to the NGO world after I graduated, right?
Ultimately I decided to do IDIP because 1) I would rather spend 3 months speaking Swahili than sitting in Piggot during a dreary Seattle winter and 2) I figured another 3 Econ classes on my transcript would mean very little to a future employer as compared to an internship in a developing country. Turns out that my other concerns turned out to be untrue anyway -- it is VERY difficult to secure an unpaid internship, even when you speak the local language. I still believe that most of the time, an intern who stays for a short time is more of a burden than an asset to the organization, but in my case, I got very lucky. Of course, knowing Swahili and having background knowledge about Kakuma and refugees helped but just before I came, there was a staff member who resigned; leaving a class that was only halfway through the course. I was able to pick up where she left off which meant that I was really filling a need and also meant that my role and responsibilities were clearly defined.
Of course, teaching is not easy and every week has been a struggle. While I’ve had experience teaching before, I have never had any formal training and this class has demanded a lot of research on my part. But after these past 9 weeks, I can say that I finally feel like I’m starting to get this teaching thing. I’m spending fewer hours stressing over lesson plans and powerpoints each day and starting to realize how I can get my students to really understand. I realize that our whole education in America is about communication -- about how we can convey an idea as effectively and briefly as possible. After almost twenty years of doing this, I’ve gotten pretty good at this. I put what I want my students to know in a few succinct points and after writing the point on the board, repeating it a few times, and maybe giving an example, I expect them to have understood and commit the point to memory.
Kumbe siyo hiyo. But it’s not like that at all! It has taken a few weeks, or years really, of being in an African context to realize that East Africans have a very different way of conveying information. For example, I went to another church with a friend on Sunday. It was the most humble mud hut and the congregation was quite small. The sermon took perhaps an hour but it could literally be summarized as: Jesus died for our sins so don’t sin! Literally. He used just three Bible verses to illustrate this point. For each Bible verse, he had a member of the congregation read the line. After every two to three words, he interrupted the member and repeated what they said several times. The first time he said the exact same words, the second time he used different words, the third time the exact same words again, the forth time he found yet another way to rephrase this. Repeat, repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Repeat again.
This has been my experience so many places. I watched one of my colleagues teach one day and in an hour and a half he covered 3 main points:
1) Teachers should smile.
2) Teachers should know the names of their students.
3) Teachers should be kind and friendly.
An hour and a half is a long time and after awhile I started to get bored wondering when he might stop giving examples and move on to the next point. At the same time, I watched his lesson over two months ago and I still remember these three points and think about them every time I teach.
Another thing I have seen is that the speaker will repeat the same thing over and over and over again until they start to wait for the person listening to fill in the blanks. Even when I am just having a one-on-one conversation with a friend and they are telling me a story, they will hesitate as if they expect me to finish their sentence--even though most of the time they will finish it themselves anyway!
Jeremiah: And then I told her she is so fat. I told her what? I told here she is so …..
Jeremiah: Fat! I told her she is so fat. So beautiful and so fat!
So my constant struggle is do I adopt this style of speaking and risk redundancy while sacrificing precious time where I could be covering something else? At first I thought that I could just expect a very high level of attention and rigor from my students -- after all these are students who were selected after a rigorous application which involved cover letters, interviews, essays, etc. They should be the best of the best and therefore be ready to learn and do so at a high level. Maybe the first few weeks will be tough but after that they’ll realize that being a student is a full-time occupation.
Well, in some ways this has worked and in others it hasn’t. I gave my first exam two weeks ago and I think in preparing, students realized that if they missed class or didn’t take good notes, they were setting themselves up for failure. Most of the time students do not inform me when they will be missing class and I have NEVER had a student who came to ask me what material they needed to make up after missing a class. But after the test, I’ve already seen that students are starting to take this class more seriously.
I also realized that I was being unrealistic in my expectations. Yes, it’s important to have high standards but I also need to take into account that absences in a setting like this are unavoidable. In the last two weeks, I’ve had three students miss class because someone in their family died. Furthermore, their English level and study skills are still quite low and I cannot expect a student to fully take note of what I’ve said in class and remember it if I do not give them the tools to do so.
Today, we were talking about lesson plans so I gave everyone a copy of my lesson plan. It helped them understand the flow of our class and understand the topic of the lecture and discussion. I was also better about giving more examples -- seriously it feels so redundant but I think they finally understood everything. Over the weekend I gave them their final assignment and they were supposed to read the directions. In class, we read them again aloud. Then 3 students summarized what I was asking. Then I quizzed them with specific questions about deadlines, components, etc. to make sure they REALLY understood. Finally, I opened it up for questions. It took over an hour to go through it all but by the end, I feel confident that everyone understands what is being asked of them. Now, it’s up to them to actually do the work.
As for me, my work is almost over but the lessons I’ve learned will carry on long past my departure date.