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Kenyan girls given a chance to dream

KAKUMA, Kenya – I've been back from my latest trip to Africa for several weeks, but there are two girls I can't get out of my mind: a mature 14-year-old called Nyanuel Noang from Sudan, and an impossibly sweet little 11-year-old named Michu Danabo from Ethiopia.

We met them at the unlikeliest place. While driving through an arid plain in northern Kenya we saw in the distance, in the middle of nowhere, a cluster of low buildings surrounded by razor wire. Was it a prison? An army camp? A food depot?

It turned out to be at school run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called the "Angelina Jolie Boarding School for Girls." The actress, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, donated money to help construct the school. But while the money came all the way from Hollywood, the girls came from the Kakuma refugee camp a couple of miles away. 

At the Kakuma camp, about 50,000 forlorn people from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda are fed by aid agencies that work with the UNHCR. They live in shacks made of local materials like branches, mud, leaves and wood. Water is often available – but not always. Some Somalis have been there since 1991. There are schools, clinics and food depots. The camp offers security, support and comfort. What it cannot give is any hope for the future.

But for the past three years, the brightest of the refugee girls from Kakuma, as well as a few from the local tribes, have been permitted to dream.

A chance to learn
They live in one line of buildings and study in another. The buildings are divided by a dusty, dry field with a few sad-looking, recently planted trees. Here the girls chase each other, sing, dance and act like young girls anywhere, glancing shyly at our handsome producer, Paul Goldman.

The 240 girls are aged 10 to 16 and study math, English, Kiswahili, social studies, science and religious education. They are enthusiastic in their classes, smile, laugh and the teachers are keen to help them.

But there's one problem. Their education ends at age 16. What then? There's no senior school, so these talented, educated young women will likely have to return to their shacks in the camp and resume their traditional roles in life. And that often means making their brothers’ beds, helping their mothers cook, marrying as soon as possible, fetching wood and water, and beginning to raise their own families.

Nyanuel appealed for help. She wants to keep studying. If she was not in Angelina Jolie’s school, she said, "They would make me marry. I want to be in school." I asked her what she wants to be in the future: "A surgeon."

I asked little Michu the same question: "A mathematics professor. I want to write books."

I keep thinking about them, of how happy they are with their lives as schoolchildren, and what a rude shock life will be when they graduate with their diplomas and their dreams.

More basic needs
Back at the Kakuma refugee camp a 17-year-old refugee girl, Nwele Sala, from Somalia, had a problem of her own.

She was waiting in line to get access to a water pump that was working and she said, "I am begging for water," she said.

"When did you last drink?" I asked.

"Two days ago," she replied.

"How many people are in your home?" I asked. "Ten," she said. "The children need water."

She was clearly next in line to reach the water pump, but it made me wonder to myself, if there was money to give, where should it go? To provide water and food for the hungry and desperate? Or to build a senior school for the students, who are hungry and desperate for knowledge and a future? If there was enough money, both goals could be financed. But apparently there isn't.

For Nyanuel, Michu and Nwele are as drops in the ocean, or maybe more apt in this drought-stricken region, grains of sand in the desert. There are many millions like them: children desperate to feed the body, and the soul.

As we left, all I could say to the girls was: "Good luck."

For more information about the refugee camp and the school, visit the UNHCR web site.

Read more of Martin Fletcher's reporting from Kenya: A window into East African refugee's pain
Tags:Kenya, Kenyan girls given a chance to dream
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