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Beating All Odds, Refugee Girl Shines At School

As teenagers around the world think glumly about the return to school, there’s one in Kenya who sees her return as a triumph. And it is. After being raised in the world’s largest refugee camp, Fatuma Omar beat the odds to win a scholarship to Nairobi’s best girls’ school. Watch video

NAIROBI -- Fatuma could have married at fifteen. She could have been among the many Somali girls who never have a secondary education. She could have stayed in the refugee camp where she grew up, helping her mother collect water and firewood. 

But Fatuma is no ordinary Somali girl. Despite her humble roots and despite coming from a culture where opportunities for young girls are few and far between, she is now attending Kenya Girls High School in Nairobi.

The tall Somali girl stands out amongst her classmates, not because she wears a veil as part of her uniform, but because of her candid smile and fierce determination.

"Want to be a doctor"

“When I complete my secondary education, I want to go to university, and in university I want to do medicine, I want to be a doctor,” she says.

Fatuma won her scholarship after coming top in exams in north east Kenya. Exams are marked out of 500. Anything above 300 for a girl, in a school system which favors boys, is considered exceptional. But for a girl educated in a refugee camp, Fatuma’s score of 364 is almost unbelievable.

Fatuma grew up in a one room shack in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp - it houses 290,000 people (see photo left). She went to one of the regular schools for refugees in the camp. The class rooms are bare places with not enough books.

But the children dutifully repeat by rote what the teachers write on the blackboard.  Fatuma remembers with gratitude the porridge she received from WFP during break-time at school. WFP provides all registered refugees with monthly rations of maize, beans, and cooking oil and provides meals for children in schools. All over the world, programmes such as these have been shown to improve attendance. 

"Depend on food" 

Millennium Development Goals

Education is the focus of the second MDG.

Read what our Youth Outreach Cordinator Graham Bell said about Fatuma and the MDGs on the Student & Teachers blog.

“We used to drink porridge in class, and it helped us. You find yourself hungry, and you are in class, and you have lessons to revise and do all that stuff, so it was a refreshment. In Dadaab you depend on that food,” she says.

Kenya Girls High School, with its gracious red buildings and tall trees, is a different world. Most of the girls come from middle class Kenyan families. Everybody is disciplined and works hard. The competitive spirit is intense.

“When I was in Dadaab there was not that much competition. I used to be number one in my school. But here people have better grades, they are also used to being number one. There’s stiff competition,” she says.

Fatuma was able to leave Dadaab partly thanks to her innate intelligence, but also thanks to the unlikely determination of her mother. In a world where women are bought with camels for marriage, Fosio Jama Salat insisted that her daughter would be educated.

"Ignorance is darkness"

“It was me that was taking care that she should not marry. I want her to learn something. To help herself and us,” Jama Salat says, “If she studies something, she can first help herself and then help her mother. Because ignorance means darkness.”

Like her daughter, Jama Salat is a strong woman. She stood up to male relatives who suggested her daughter marry young. She then allowed her daughter to travel to Kenya’s capital city Nairobi for her education, a place which she could only imagine.  Fatuma clearly misses the woman who was her anchor throughout her childhood.

“I miss my mum, and the other children. When you are near to your mum, you can discuss everything, and you feel at home,” she says.

Although the adjustment has been difficult, Fatuma is determined to make the most of her chance to fulfill what should have been impossible dreams.

She realizes that she is an important example to those Somali girls she has left in Dadaab. Although it offers sanctuary, for most Somali teenagers Dadaab is a place of desperation. Many feel trapped in the camp, unable to make proper lives for themselves in Kenya. Fatuma’s story gives them hope.