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For refugee with visual impairment, inclusion brings goals into focus

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Magartu studies alongside students without disabilities for the first time since she fled from Ethiopia – and she is now among the top in her class.

By Samuel Otieno in Kakuma camp, Kenya | 03 December 2021

Magartu sits outside her house, scrolling through her phone. Like most teenagers, she enjoys the breaks in between her studies when she can relax and check her messages.

The 16-year-old Ethiopian refugee lost her eyesight at a young age and has learnt to adapt to life without it. She uses an accessible app on her voice-activated phone to navigate between her favourite social media apps.

“When someone texts me, I listen to it and respond through the app. That’s how I stay connected to my friends,” she smiles.

Magartu was just eight when she and her older brother and sister fled Ethiopia due to conflict. When they arrived at Kenya’s Kakuma camp, her siblings immediately enrolled her in Tarach Primary School – a special school for children with disabilities.

“At first, school was stressful. I cried a lot because I did not understand the language. I felt like everyone was talking about me,” she recalls, adding that her teachers were patient with her and helping her learn English, the official language of instruction in Kenya.

“At first, school was stressful. I cried a lot because I did not understand the language.”

In sixth grade, she transferred to a mainstream school, where children with disabilities integrate with other learners. The staff and students were welcoming and supportive. Through sharing a classroom with other students and joining in extra-curricular activities like sports and clubs, she started to feel a new confidence.

“I had no competition in the special school as I was the only learner in grade six. So, whatever marks I got, I was always first in my class,” she explains. “I liked my new school because I had competition. I was courageous enough to believe that I could be first in my class. Who am I not to be number one,” she adds.

Over 12 million people like Magartu with disabilities have been forcibly displaced by persecution, violence and human rights violations worldwide, although surveys and assessments suggest the real number may be much higher.

They are often at higher risk of violence, discrimination, exploitation and abuse, face barriers to access basic services, and are often excluded from education and the chance to work and earn a living.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, recognizes that including people with disabilities in education is a vital step toward enabling them to realize their potential and live a full and dignified life.

To meet that aim in Kenya, UNHCR and education partners Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Finn Church Aid and Humanity & Inclusion piloted inclusive education in several schools in Kakuma camp and the adjacent Kalobeyei settlement, including Magartu’s former school. Learners with disabilities share classrooms with other students, resulting in a less discriminatory and more inclusive atmosphere for them.

The first phase of the pilot involved community participation and awareness creation in schools, with parents, guardians, community leaders and learners. Selected learners were then enrolled for the pilot, with consent from their parents and guardians.

“Through inclusive education, we have seen more equality in the participation of all children in school activities,” explains Elizabeth Wanjiku, LWF’s Inclusive Education Officer based in Kakuma. “They can participate more and take pride in their personal achievements. More learners with disabilities are happy with this direction.”

Ali Omar Duale, UNHCR’s Education Officer in Kakuma adds, “it’s important to ensure that schools are well resourced, teachers capacities developed, and infrastructure made accessible for everyone, to adequately manage the various needs of learners.”

“It’s important to ensure that schools are well resourced.”

All signs show that Magartu is on track to meet her goals. Earlier this year, she sat for the national primary education finals and graduated among the top students in her class. Best still, she was among the top learners with a disability in the country – out of more than 2,600 students with disabilities countrywide, only 318 students, including Magartu, scored over 300 marks out of a possible 500.

“I am very happy to be one of the best students in the camp,” she says proudly.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to ensure continuity of learning were implemented across the country and in the camp, with funding from donors. Thankfully, accessible digital solutions using mobile technology have ensured learners like Magartu are able to keep up with their studies.

“I received Braille textbooks to read on my own and a radio to attend live radio lessons,” adds Magartu.

According to LWF’s Elizabeth, Magartu’s achievement will inspire many other students with disabilities to believe in themselves.

“We continue urging parents and guardians to enroll their children who live with disabilities in mainstream schools,” she adds.

“There will always be challenges in life but you know what? We can overcome them!”

Magartu is now on a UNHCR scholarship at a local high school and is determined to finish her studies and enrol in law school.

“I want to be a lawyer because I want to defend people who have been denied their rights, like people with disabilities, orphans, and widows,” she says.

She urges people with disabilities to work towards their dreams and never give up.

“Be courageous and continue working hard. There will always be challenges in life but you know what? We can overcome them!”