Refugee school becomes one of Uganda's top institutions

UGA180422PB003KYANGWALI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – When he arrived in this United Nations camp Western Uganda in 1991, Joseph Munyambaza attended poor schools.

Eighteen years later, he and other young Congolese refugees wanted to help children also faced dismal education prospects. So they started a school called COBURWAS – a combination of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan, or the countries of origin for many of the refugees in the camp. Today, COBURWAS has 530 primary and secondary students.

“We studied in overcrowded schools and were taught by unqualified teachers,” said Joseph Munyambaza, 27, co-founder of COBURWAS. “The school started to create homelike environment for the most vulnerable children in the community to access education.”

Munyambaza and his colleagues used to work for farmers to raise money to buy textbooks, exercise books and other basic needs to outfit COBURWAS.

Today, the school is one of the best performing schools in Uganda, ranking among the top four schools in the country on national examinations, according to the Ugandan Education Ministry. The school has also been designated an Ashoka Changemaker School – a designation by a U.S. nonprofit that recognizes innovative education – and its students have received awards from the American Refugee Council and other organizations.

COBURWAS has moved more than 800 students into secondary school. More than 40 of its students now attend universities around the world. Five have earned their university degrees and have returned to work fulltime in the camp.

“We recognize the power of education as a pathway out of poverty, as well as a means to heal conflict, create social cohesion, and spur economic growth,” said Munyambaza, who fled North Kivu, in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, when he was six.

The camp, which was started 20 years ago due to the ongoing violence in neighboring countries, has about 40,000 refugees. Though the camp has a number of United Nations and government-funded free schools, their quality is often poor. With too few trained teachers, their graduation rates are low, and their students rarely qualify to go on to high school.

“The UNHCR schools around here are free but students rarely pass exams,” said John Nitakiye, a refugee representative at the camp. “Most students don’t proceed to the next level of education and some drop-out of school before they can even sit for their final exams.”

Nitakiye said UNHCR schools do not give children any meal, which discourages students to attend classes. Many close in the middle of the day after only a few hours of instruction.

“How do you expect students to pass exams in such an environment even if there’s free education?” he asked. “We appeal to donors to help our children access to quality education by improving the education standards at the camp.”

In contrast, the COBURWAS starts classes before 7:30am and attendance is close to 100 percent, said Munyambaza. Children here know how education is important to their lives. The candidates sit quietly in classrooms. The school has a nurse to provide basic healthcare to children. She also provides sanitary materials to girls in upper primary.

“We feed our children and we give them special attention. They get breakfast, lunch and many of children end up having dinner,” said Munyambaza, a graduate from Westminster College in Missouri in the United States. “Our teachers are very qualified that’s the reason we produce the best students. We believe that our children will grow to be leaders and so we treat them in the best way we can.”

Students at the school feel the same way and many here are motivated to excel despite being refugees.

“I want to work hard, pass exams and be like him [Munyambaza],” said Susan Uwineza, a 19-year-old refugee from Rwanda who arrived at the camp in early 2000s with her parents. “When other refugees excel in education and they succeed in life it really motivates us. We realize that through education you can never be called a refugee forever.”

COBURWAS Primary School charges around $20 annually. Other private schools in the camp charge from $20 to $100 a year for school fees.
Children whose parents can afford only a percentage of the school’s fees are asked to make in-kind contributions.

The school has land where parents grow food, and produces crops such as maize, beans, yams, sugar cane, and vegetables. Many refugees also rear chickens, goats, sheep or cattle on land alottments. Most parents contribute these foodstuffs to the school to help feed their children.

“Parents’ contribution though may look small; it helps us to feed children throughout the year without depending on any external donations,” said John Bosco, the head teacher at COBURWAS Primary School. “We work with donors and friends to cover part of the teachers’ salaries and new expansion of the school structures.”

Children who cannot afford anything attend for free.

However, refugees at the camp said the school was not admitting many children because of what they said was a lack of resources.

“We want our children to be admitted at the school so that they can also enjoy better education,” said Nitakiye. “But the teachers at the school keep on telling us that they have no space to accommodate many students. They need to improve on that.”

But Munyambaza said that was only one of the challenges he and the school were facing.

“We also see a need to help more children but we do not have enough resources to do so,” he said. “We are trying to reach more children by supporting primary and early childhood education programs started by our alumni but the need are still big.”

Prisca Bwiza contributed to this story

Photo: Students at COBURWAS primary school pose for a photo. Most of the students here are able to access free education. The school was started by four Congolese refugees.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (04/22/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/09/18

A version of this story was published in Al-Fanar.
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