Becoming a refugee opens up the world of education to young Somali woman
Monday, July 01, 2013
Nothing has deterred Somali refugee Hali Shukri Ibrahim from her
passion to get an education. Not an early forced marriage, nor war, nor
separation from her parents, husband and baby son, nor exile.
© UNHCR Eritrea
refugee Hali Shukri Ibrahim smiles from behind stacks of study aids at
Massawa High School near Umkulu Refugee Camp in the port town of
Massawa, Eritrea. The 26-year-old paradoxically found that becoming a
refugee gave her what she always had longed for – an education.
In fact, the 26-year-old says becoming a refugee gave her the prized
opportunity to study, and stoked her ambitions. Goals that back home, in
Mogadishu, capital of then war-torn Somalia, would have been limited to
raising a large family, she says.
Now a Grade 12 student at an Eritrean government high school near her
home in Umkulu Refugee Camp, Hali is dreaming big. "I want to study
hard, go to the university and become a doctor," she says. "When I came
to Eritrea, I could hardly speak and write English. Now I am somewhat
fluent and can write it."
It was her effort to learn English that started her on the meandering
journey that brought her to this Red Sea port town, where more than
3,400 fellow Somalis live in the refugee camp.
At home in Mogadishu, she listened to the BBC to improve her English.
One day in 2008 she heard on the BBC Family Tracing Programme that her
parents were in Eritrea – and looking for her.
She had been a refugee with them there once before, in 1996 at the
age of nine, but she went back to her native Somalia when fighting broke
out later along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea –
leaving her entire family behind. Back in Mogadishu, she was married
off to a complete stranger before even finishing primary school.
Once her husband learned her parents were looking for her, in an act
of self-sacrifice he agreed to divorce her. He even helped her set off
alone to find them. Parting from her two-year-old son, Hali set off
through Djibouti before finally achieving the long-awaited reunion with
her ageing parents.
Life in Umkulu Refugee Camp brought an unexpected benefit: UNHCR pays
for Hali to attend the government school, 20 minutes from the camp,
buys her school uniforms and takes care of the transport.
"I wouldn't want to be doing anything right now, other than
studying," she says. Today, she uses her new language skills to work
part-time as a Somali-English translator.
After rejoining her parents and getting a priceless education, her
joy became complete when, five years after she had last seen him, UNHCR
reunited her with her son, now seven. He too is now getting an education
in the camp.
"My joy is boundless. To have my son back with me is to restore part
of me that was dead," says Hali. "I'm happy to have him with me and take
care of my diabetic father," she adds. "Of course I have to juggle
between my schoolwork and family responsibilities, but I am not
This camp has just one primary school, attended by more than 1,100
pupils in kindergarten to Grade Eight. Because there are fewer than 100
secondary school students in the camp, "it is not cost effective to
build a secondary school, and therefore UNHCR prefers that the refugee
are integrated in the Eritrean public schools," says Viola Kuhaisa,
education officer in UNHCR's Nairobi Regional Support Hub, who recently
worked with UNHCR's Eritrean team in the camp.
For Hali, it doesn't matter whether the school is inside the camp, or
20 minutes away, as long as she gets an education. "If I was in
Somalia," she says, "I'd be married with five or more children. I am
eternally grateful to UNHCR for allowing me to pursue my dream and