The Vulnerable Scholars Program (VSP), an initiative of Scottie’s Place, takes best practices from our work with highly disadvantaged youth in the U.S. and applies this knowledge and experience to educational programs for girls at risk in regions around the world. Programs assist girls who have been displaced or imperiled by war, poverty, disease, or natural disaster. We are currently partnering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and education providers to implement programs for students in refugee camps in Botswana, Kenya, and Rwanda.
The mission of the Vulnerable Scholars Program is to promote transformative education and leadership development for high-achieving girls from vulnerable populations, positioning scholars to contribute actively to the development of their host and home countries. VSP will work with refugee girls to facilitate the academic leap from good to great, strengthen talents and abilities, and develop key leadership skills. Programs will be designed for ambitious students with far-reaching academic goals that include a college degree and meaningful long-term aspirations. By developing the capacity of high-potential girls, VSP will ensure that, as women, they will have the skills and support to participate fully in the reconstruction and peace building of their communities.
Today, 3.5 million people live within the confines of refugee camps: individuals and families who were forced to flee their homes and seek the sanctuary of a camp for its promise of protection and relative peace (UNHCR Global Trends 2011). However, the reality for many is that short-term refuge often evolves into decades of encampment, fostering a dehumanizing and destabilizing environment. Research shows that sole reliance on UNHCR’s three durable solutions (repatriation, local integration, resettlement) is ineffective for the general refugee population, requiring a reimagining of solutions toward breaking the cycle of refugee confinement. We believe that education is the fourth durable solution; that educated citizens are critical to successful peace building and recovery; and that the quality of education our youth receive is the greatest determinant of meaningful and lasting change. Global implications for failing to educate our most vulnerable youth will be tallied in ongoing displacement, poor governance, and renewed conflict.
The Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana has a population of nearly 3,500; the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya is currently home to over 100,000 people, making it one of the largest refugee camps in the world; and Rwanda now shelters approximately 66,000 refugees in four separate camps. The camps host refugees from across the continent, with a wide range of educational and professional levels amongst adults. Restrictive encampment policies in each country limit freedom of movement and employment of refugees, and minimize prospects for legally exiting the camps. The loss of human potential is palpable as capable adults trained in education, business, and other professions endure years of isolation and forced idleness. Refugees have lived in the camps for varying lengths of time, though many have been trapped in the camps for over a generation and have raised their children there.
Despite the challenges and uncertainty, many of the youth are resolved, dedicated to their education, and show tremendous promise. Yet their academic prospects diminish as they progress through secondary school, where even the best students struggle with the realities associated with their refugee status: food insecurity, threats to their safety, domestic obligations, disempowerment, a need for psychosocial and academic support, shortages of teachers and school supplies, and limited livelihood opportunities. Students are often unable to complete their education and are more likely to remain in the camps indefinitely – uneducated and unskilled – thereby perpetuating the cycle of displacement. Their loss will be that of the larger community as well, represented by the lack of intellectual capital, the absence of a trained workforce, and a scarcity of qualified leaders. For all youth, access to quality secondary education with a focus on post-secondary training and employment acquisition is now recognized as one of the best approaches for breaking the cycle of generational encampment. The reality is that for most refugees, girls in particular, these opportunities are rare.
Following the model of U.S. programs for talented yet disadvantaged students, the Vulnerable Scholars Program, in partnership with UNHCR and education providers, will provide preparatory programs for high-potential refugee girls, as well as a percentage of vulnerable, academically talented girls from the host communities. Programs will provide educational, experiential, and advisory services, beginning in upper primary/junior secondary school. With the goal of maximizing individual potential, programs will be designed to increase student eligibility for secondary school and university scholarships, both regionally and internationally. Mentoring, long-term support, and strategic career guidance from an international network of professionals will be critical components of services provided, and ensure that students continue on a productive post-graduation path. With targeted assistance, participating students will complete secondary school with high marks, acquire relevant post-secondary education and training, and vie for competitive employment.
VSP emphasizes the development of leadership capacity among students: a key strategy in facilitating community-driven solutions to confinement, and in preparing the present generation of youth to play a more productive role in post-conflict recovery. Preparatory programs will become a vehicle for student-initiated activities aimed at identifying needs within the camps and targeting solutions through community engagement. Student-led service projects will allow participants to develop their leadership and community organizing skills while actively addressing fundamental issues of displacement.
Support and engagement from both the refugee and host communities will be vital to the longevity and sustainability of the program. Planning, implementation, and evaluation will be conducted in concert with community members to ensure cultural sensitivity and relevance. Older, academically qualified youth, as well as adults with advanced degrees or special skills, will be recruited as tutors, mentors and activity leaders. Student participants will be guided in tutoring and mentoring younger students, and the active participation of parents will be encouraged. Direct involvement of the refugee and host communities in all stages of service provision will assure the viability of the program, and an investment in participation and outcome.
The Vulnerable Scholars Program is supported by our strong partnerships within the international community. Ms. Lynn Ngugi, UNHCR Country Representative, Botswana, formerly Snr. Regional Global Advisor (Women & Children, East Africa), UNHCR, has been closely advising the program’s development. In Dukwi, we are also collaborating with Ms. Tiny Healy, Executive Director of Skillshare Botswana (the implementing partner for education and vocational training in the camp). In Kakuma, we have been assisted in our efforts by Dr. Marangu Njogu, Executive Director of Windle Trust, Kenya (one of the leading educational providers in Kakuma). And in Rwanda, we have been supported by UNHCR Country Representative Ms. Neimah Warsame. In our efforts to create transformative educational opportunities, we are fostering linkages with top-level secondary schools and universities on the continent and abroad, and have received support from the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, and the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. We are continuing to seek partners from the public and private sectors with a commitment to quality education for refugee students.