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Refugee school offers children a promising future

Updated: Nov 8, 2018

When Joseph Munyambaza and his family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and journeyed to the Kyangwali refugee settlement camp in Uganda in 1997, he was just six years old. He had no shoes, little to eat, and often attended the camp’s primary school on an empty stomach. Joseph says coping with his new circumstances was hard, but he appreciates his mother for making him go to school to prepare him for the future. “I realized that there is no shortcut in life and schooling was the only option,” he says.

Classrooms at the camp’s only primary school were overcrowded, but Joseph worked hard and earned a scholarship from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to join a secondary school outside of the camp in Hoima town. It was here that he and four other students initiated the idea of starting up another primary school at Kyangwali camp to teach the children.

Building the school’s foundations

In order to save enough money to construct a classroom, in 2005, Joseph and his friends started helping out on local farms, carrying out casual labour such as digging and harvesting work. With the money they earned they were able to open their school in 2006, starting with 12 pupils. The school was registered with the Ministry of Education in Uganda, as COBURWAS – short for Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Sudan – the nationalities of the camp’s children. Soon enough, COBURWAS students were speaking good English and parents wanted their children to attend Joseph’s school. The positive work of COBURWAS also drew attention from religious leaders who, together with parents on the camp, supported Joseph and the others to extend the school in 2007. The school now has classes running from nursery level to primary seven (age 11) and 430 children are in attendance – 199 girls and 209 boys.

Empowering women and girls

From his own schooling on the camp as a child, Joseph recognised that the attendance of girls was much lower than that of boys; there had only been one girl in his class. To help address this problem and protect young girls from issues such as abuse early marriages and unwanted pregnancies, COBURWAS paid for 47 girls between the ages of 9 and 14 to stay at a hostel so they could progress their studies without fear of abuse.

Many of the girls have since completed their secondary education and are now studying at college. “I left the camp to go to South Africa to study at the African Leadership Academy. I graduated in June 2017 and have since returned to the camp to give back to the community,” says 20-year-old Prisca Bwiza from DRC. Prisca is now helping to manage social media and communications at the camp to raise awareness of the work of the school.

Developing children’s skills

As well as teaching the national curriculum, which includes music, dance and drama, COBURWAS provides counseling to children and teaches them farming skills. “I didn't know about farming but now I can prepare land, plant crops, cultivate and harvest. Here, I am harvesting beans and when I go home, I help my mum to do the farming,” says Alice Ngabire, a previous student of COBURWAS who is now attending secondary school. The children are also provided with breakfast and lunch from the school’s 2 hectare farm, which is planted with maize, beans and eggplant.

In 2009, COBURWAS was registered as a community-based organisation and renamed COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa, or CIYOTA. In 2012, as further recognition of the good work of the school, the MasterCard Foundation started offering scholarships to outstanding youths in the camp to enable them to attend universities worldwide. Joseph was one of the first to receive a scholarship in 2013 to study at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. He also went on to study a degree in biochemistry at the City of Westminister College, UK, which he has since completed and returned to CIYOTA to teach.

Written by Pius Sawa

Based in Kenya, Pius is a multi-media journalist with over 10 years of experience and Director of Zetu Media Services.

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