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West Virginia Nonprofit Reaches Out To Educate Girls In African Refugee Camps
Guest post from Matt Vincent of Scottie’s Place.
We arrived at the Dukwi refugee camp on a blistering January afternoon, after a five-hour drive from Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. Months earlier, I had been asked to join Scottie’s Place Founder, Paul Winter, on a fact-finding mission to five refugee camps in Africa. Our goal was to better understand the educational challenges faced by girls living in the camps, and the ways in which Scottie’s Place could help. At that time, Scottie’s Place, a nonprofit organization based in West Virginia, was expanding its mission to empower and educate children affected by poverty in the US, to include vulnerable children from around the globe.
The Dukwi refugee camp is located in east-central Botswana, near the Zimbabwean border. Confined in this wholly unnatural environment are 4,000 people, whose nationalities represent nearly a dozen African countries. As we moved through the camp on that first day, the obvious poverty was in great contrast to the degree of development: in addition to UNHCR tents for new arrivals, there were adobe-type shelters and even tin-roofed store fronts situated on tiny plots of land. Many homes had gardens that had been cultivated for years to supplement food rations. This was entrenchment at its essence. People seek refuge for immediate protection from violence and hunger, hoping to return home as soon as possible. The hard truth is that for those of us who must flee our countries, the average confinement in a refugee camp is an incredible 17 years. As I looked around me, I wondered, how education could be used as resource, as a means for these girls to break the bonds of generational encampment.
Over the next four days, Paul and I spoke with parents and teachers and many wonderful girls, learning about the students’ daily activities, what their school experience was like, what types of clubs and community organizations they participated in, and what their future aspirations were. Like girls everywhere, the students we spoke with were committed to their education and showed tremendous promise. Yet we learned of the many dangerous and oppressive challenges in their lives that left them struggling to maintain concentration and engagement in school. From hunger to early marriage, sexual violence and poor prospects for leaving the camp – in the hierarchy of survival strategies, girls’ education came last. Yet the girls were painfully clear that education was their only chance.
When Paul and I returned home, we immediately began designing the Leadership, Education, and Empowerment Program (LEEP), a preparatory program that takes core components of the Scottie’s Place programs for vulnerable children in the US and applies this knowledge to academic and leadership programs for high-achieving refugee girls. Beginning with students in 8th grade, LEEP will provide academic tutoring, and peer mentoring to help prepare students for scholarships to boarding schools and universities. Equally important, LEEP will provide leadership training to the girls, promoting student-led activities within the camp that are aimed at identifying needs and targeting solutions to long-term displacement. At the core of LEEP is on-going support and guidance for girls with a passion for excellence, ensuring that, as women, they will have the skills to participate fully in the peace building and reconstruction of their communities. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has asked Scottie’s Place to launch LEEP this October in Dukwi, and I will be headed there to manage the program.
In order to launch LEEP, Scottie’s Place must raise $10,700, which will cover programming costs, hiring a teacher from the camp, and outreach. We need your help. I’ve put together a fundraising page on Indiegogo.com; please visit the page, check out the short video, read our brief concept paper, and look through the budget. Once I’m there, I’ll be hosting live Google+ Hangouts to update you on the progress of LEEP, introduce you to the amazing young women in the program, answer your questions, and hear your ideas.
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Etress, one of the incredible girls from Dukwi, spoke frankly: “Education is life for a refugee.” We have the ability to help these remarkable young women find a way out of Dukwi and become a part of a new generation of global leaders.
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