KYANGWALI REFUGEE SETTLEMENT, Uganda – When he arrived at this United Nations camp in western Uganda in 1997, Joseph Munyambanza had been able to attend only poor-quality schools.
Eight years later, he and other young refugee students wanted to help children who also faced dismal education prospects, so they started a club with activities focusing on education. In 2009, they expanded that effort to create their own school called Coburwas – a combination of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan, the countries of origin for many of the refugees in the camp. Today, Coburwas has 530 primary and secondary students.
“We studied in overcrowded schools and were taught by unqualified teachers,” said Munyambanza, who fled North Kivu, in a war-torn region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when he was six. He was still a teenager when he and other refugee youths started Coburwas “to create [a] homelike environment for the most vulnerable children in the community to access education.”
Munyambanza and his colleagues used to work for farmers to raise money to buy textbooks, exercise books and other basic supplies to outfit the school.
Today, Coburwas is one of the best-performing schools in Uganda, ranking among the top four schools in the country on national examinations, according to the Ugandan Education Ministry. Coburwas has also been designated an Ashoka Changemaker School by the global nonprofit group Ashoka, which recognizes citizen-led innovations in education and other social institutions, and its students have received awards from the American Refugee Committee and other organizations.
A Pathway Out of Poverty
Since it started, Coburwas has moved more than 800 students from primary into secondary school. More than 40 of its students now attend universities around the world; five, having earned university degrees, have returned to work full-time in the camp.
“We recognize the power of education as a way out of poverty, as well as a means to heal conflict, create social cohesion and spur economic growth,” said Munyambanza, who is now 27.
The Kyangwali settlement, which was started about 20 years ago as people fled to Uganda to escape violence in neighboring countries, has about 40,000 residents today. Though the camp has a number of schools supported by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Ugandan government, their quality is often poor. With too few trained teachers, the schools’ graduation rates are low, and their students rarely qualify to go on to high school.
“The UNHCR schools around here are free but students rarely pass exams,” said John Nitakiye, a refugee representative at the camp. “Most students don’t proceed to the next level of education and some drop out of school before they can even sit for their final exams.”
Nitakiye said UNHCR schools do not give children any meals, which discourages students from attending classes. Many schools close in the middle of the day, after only a few hours of instruction.
“How do you expect students to pass exams in such an environment even if there’s free education?” he asked. “We appeal to donors to help our children get access to quality education by improving the education standards at the camp.”
The U.N. has acknowledged the problems at its schools there but said it was working under difficult conditions.
“The Ugandan refugee program is severely underfunded, impacting every sector including education,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Uganda, in an email. “We do acknowledge that for some refugee students, adjustment in overcrowded classrooms, and insufficient personal coaching and guidance might be among the reasons affecting their personal grades.”
In contrast to the UNHCR schools, classes at Coburwas start before 7:30 a.m. and attendance is close to 100 percent, said Munyambanza. Children here know that education is important to their lives, he added. The pupils sit quietly in classrooms. The school has a nurse to provide basic healthcare to children; she also provides sanitary materials to girls in the upper primary grades.
“We feed our children and we give them special attention. They get breakfast, lunch, and many of children end up having dinner,” said Munyambanza. “Our teachers are very qualified. That’s the reason we produce the best students.
“We believe that our children will grow to be leaders and so we treat them in the best way we can.”
Motivated to Excel
Students at the school feel the same way, and many here are motivated to excel despite being refugees. Many are inspired by Munyambanza’s own journey: He earned a degree in biochemistry from Westminster College in Missouri, in the United States, in 2015 before returning to continue his work with Coburwas. His efforts have won numerous international recognitions, including a Global Citizenship Award in 2013.
“I want to work hard, pass exams and be like him,” said Susan Uwineza, a 19-year-old refugee from Rwanda who arrived at the camp in the early 2000s with her parents. “When other refugees excel in education and they succeed in life, it really motivates us. We realize that through education you can never be called a refugee forever.”
Coburwas Primary School charges around $51 annually. Other private schools in the camp charge from $20 to $100 a year for school fees. Children whose parents can afford only a percentage of the school’s fees are asked to make in-kind contributions.
The school has land where parents grow crops such as maize, beans, yams, sugar cane and other vegetables. Many refugees also raise chickens, goats, sheep or cattle on land allotments.
Parents’ contributions may look small, but they help the school feed children throughout the year, said John Bosco, the head teacher at Coburwas Primary School. “We work with donors and friends to cover part of the teachers’ salaries and new expansion of the school structures.”
Children who cannot afford anything attend free of charge. However, refugees at the camp said the school was not admitting many children because of a lack of resources.
“We want our children to be admitted at the school so that they can also enjoy better education,” said Nitakiye. “But the teachers at the school keep on telling us that they have no space to accommodate many students. They need to improve on that.”
Munyambanza agreed that finding a way to admit more students was a challenge, but only one of several that he and the school were facing.
“We also see a need to help more children, but we do not have enough resources to do so,” he said. “We are trying to reach more children by supporting primary and early childhood education programs started by our alumni, but the needs are still big.”
Prisca Bwiza contributed to this article.
Tonny Onyulo is a freelance print and broadcast journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has worked for both local and international media, including Voice of America (VOA), USA Today, Washington Times and Global Post. He reports across Africa for various outlets in Europe.