Abdullahi Mire: Education is the midwife of peace and stability in Somalia

Mogadishu – At just 37 years of age, Abdullahi Mire has already lived something of a full and remarkable life.

He has gone from being a Somali refugee to an internationally-recognised advocate for refugees.

It has been a sometimes-dizzying experience, but one that Mr. Mire is determined to make the most – he knows he has been fortunate and is determined to give something back to those with fewer opportunities.

He has nothing but gratitude for where his path has led in life.

But he has a special appreciation for a Somali girl by the name of Hodan Bashir whom he met in 2017 and had a major impact on that path.

Aged 17 at the time, Ms. Bashir was living in the Dadaab refugee complex in northern Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty were living.

Mr. Mire, working as a journalist for an international news outlet, had gone to Dadaab for some reporting on the situation there.

“She approached me with a request: to buy her a biology textbook. She aspired to become a doctor. She did have access to a chemistry textbook; she had to share it with 12 other girls in her class,” he says.

“At night, only one girl could take the book home. This situation arose because refugee camps can be dangerous for young girls at night. Boys could study together at someone’s house and return home safely. But every night, 11 of those 12 girls lacked a book to study from,” he adds. “One girl, whenever she had the book, stayed up late into the night – she was determined to absorb as much knowledge as possible from that single textbook.”

Mr. Mire returned to Nairobi some days later and, once there, he proceeded to a nearby bookshop and bought a dozen text books for the young student and her classmates.

“Imagine – that textbook cost just $7, and such a small amount of money can go a long way to help a refugee to study,” he says.

But it was not enough. Something from the exchange niggled at him for days.

“I asked myself why I, an adult and educated journalist, couldn’t show the same courage as a young girl. I wanted to do something for my community. Why couldn’t I ask others to buy more textbooks too?” he says.

And so, from these inauspicious beginnings, the Refugee Youth Education Hub (RYEH) was created, setting Mr. Mire on his journey from being a refugee to becoming someone who helps refugees.

Early start

Mr. Mire’s visit to the Dadaab refugee complex in 2017 was far from his first time at the location – he spent most of his formative years there.

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya.

Born in southern Somalia in 1987, Mr. Mire moved to Dadaab in the 1990s when his family fled their home country’s bloody conflict. He spent 23 years in the refugee complex, before he was  eventually resettled in Norway. He could have stayed there, but felt the pull of his community and returned to east Africa as a young adult.

The sprawling Dadaab complex has a population of around 373,000 people – registered refugees and asylum-seekers – as of October 2023. Most of them are from Somalia and some 56 per cent are children. Many have been there for years.

Operations in the complex are coordinated by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which, along with its partners and with the support of the Kenyan government and host community, has for more than three decades provided all essential services for the refugees – including education.

According to a 2019 UNHCR report – ‘Stepping Up: Refugee Education in Crisis’ – as refugee children grow older, the barriers preventing them from accessing education around the world become harder to overcome: only 63 per cent of refugee children go to primary school, compared to 91 per cent globally. Around the world, 84 per cent of adolescents get a secondary education, while only 24 per cent of refugees get the opportunity.

Dadaab has three camps: Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley. In them, there are 22 pre-schools and 22 primary schools. There are also six secondary schools, five primary accelerated learning centers and nine Alternative Basic Education centres. Additionally, there are 6 vocational learning centers. All these schools follow the Kenyan curriculum. There are also some religious schools.

The number of students enrolled across pre-school, primary school and secondary school stands at just over 62,000.

Yet, despite these signs of progress, challenges remain in its educational activities.

According to UNHCR, in some of the schools, teachers work double shifts as one group of children attend school in the morning and another group comes in the afternoon. The lack of textbooks, teaching material and stationery contribute to low performance in the schools in the camps. This is on top of the strong demand for more classrooms, desks, textbooks and teachers.

Out of those students who manage to complete secondary school, only a small number are able to go on to further education.

Mr. Mire was one of them.

He went on to tertiary study at Kenya’s Kenyatta University, from which he graduated with a diploma in journalism and public relations in 2013.

He became a journalist, although alternated this employment with stints with the UN’s International Organization for Migration in Mogadishu and the southern Somali cities of Baidoa and Kismayo. His work centred on disarmament, demobilization and reintegration issues, aimed at taking combatants out of their groups and helping them to reintegrate as civilians into society.

Books and more books

Ms. Hodan’s request for a biology book led to some textbooks being sent to her and her classmates from Nairobi.

She could not know that what began as a delivery of a dozen textbooks would lead eventually to a torrent of tens of thousands of books for the residents of the Dadaab refugee complex.

After mulling over what more could be done, Mr. Mire, with some friends and associates, in 2018 landed on the idea of creating the RYEH, a local, refugee-led non-governmental organization which aims to empower young refugees and advocate for them, their voices and ambitions.

“Education is at the core of all we do: from providing direct support of school-aged children through our Dadaab Book Drive, to the acquisition of new skills in our livelihood programmes, to working with communities to improve communication and enhance social inclusion. We believe that education is critical to delivering the belonging, dignity, equity, and justice we all need and demand,” according to RYEH’s website.

The ‘Dadaab Book Drive’ has been a major activity for RYEH.

It was started in 2018 and, since then, RYEH has collected more than 150,000 donated books and distributed them to the students and children of the Dadaab refugee complex. Donors have included another NGO, Books for Africa, as well as UNHCR and the Embassy of Qatar to Kenya.

The ‘Dadaab Book Drive’ has been a major activity for RYEH.

“The Dadaab Book Drive was a big campaign. It targeted Somali diasporas and international organizations. It was and is a successful initiative,” Mr. Mire says. “It is a generous thing to do for these children.”

“The number of students will continue to increase in these schools. And what does this mean? They all need books. Imagine a book shared by 10 students. That’s why Refugee Youth Education Hub continues to advocate for the rights of these students. We also encourage international organizations, companies, and individual well-wishers to help us get as many books as possible. Then we can make the ratio one to one,” Mr. Mire says.

RYEH secured another 60,000 books for three public libraries it set up in Dadaab.

“The public libraries quench the thirst for knowledge of Dadaab’s youth. It is also a space for them to do assignments and read for pleasure,” Mr. Mire days, adding, “I hope they will develop a reading culture by the end of the day.”

With support from Books for Africa, UNHCR, Qatar Charity, UNHCR and the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), RYEH now has seven full-time staff and 100 volunteers providing education and livelihood services to the youth and children in the Dadaab refugee complex.

“This camp has made intellectuals. They are smart students. Some have gotten into Ivy League universities in the United States, like Princeton. Some have also gotten into universities in Canada,” Mr. Mire says. “It has also produced excellent journalists, teachers, writers, and other professionals—Dadaab youngsters can help rebuild their home country. They need the same opportunities as others.”

There is also the aspect of Somali youth being pulled into the orbit of terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, the kind of group whose violence was one of the reasons Mr. Mire’s family fled Somalia in the first place.

“Illiteracy has led to the indoctrination of young men with radical ideologies. If you can’t read, someone else will do it for you,” Mr. Mire says. Someone will brainwash you. That is what happened to many of those youth.”

International recognition

Mr. Mire was working at his desk in his Nairobi home one evening late last year when his efforts in Dadaab suddenly took on a new dimension.

On the morning of Tuesday, 28 November, he received an email informing him that he had been nominated for the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Awards.

“My reaction is one of tears and joy for me, my family and REYH volunteers,” he says. “All over the world, people started sending me congratulatory messages.”

Then, in mid-December, he was announced as the award’s 2023 Global Laureate. He was flown to UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva, to take part in the award ceremony.

“I want to dedicate this award to the one who made my path easier and encouraged me to use my own agency to make a difference in this life – to my mother, thank you. You made it possible for me to thrive,” he said in his acceptance speech.

“And,” he added, “I want to dedicate this award to every child – from Somalia to Afghanistan to Venezuela, from Myanmar to the Middle East, from Congo to Central America – who has been scooped up in someone’s arms as they ran ‘because anywhere was safer than here.’”

Established in 1954, the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award honours individuals, groups and organizations who go above and beyond the call of duty to protect refugees, as well as internally displaced and stateless people.

It is named after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer, scientist and diplomat who became the first High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations in 1920. He developed the “Nansen passport” shortly afterwards, which served as an identity document and a travel permit for refugees until 1942. He also organized a relief programme for millions of Russians affected by a famine in 1921-1922. For his crucial work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

Future outlook

Since his award, Mr. Mire has been giving thought to how he can build on his achievements so far for the good of others.

He is conscious that being a laureate is not an end in itself – that it comes with responsibilities and obligations.

“In a nutshell, my ultimate plan is to extend this initiative to Somalia, especially in cities like Kismayo, Baidoa, Garowe and several others soon,” he says, adding that he knows it will not be easy but that he is determined, and he is considering a target of one million donated books for those in need.

Mr. Mire has been visiting Somalia since his win to explore how he can contribute to his home country’s development.

“I want to change not only lives of refugee children and youth in Dadaab but also internally displaced people (IDPs) all over Somalia,” he says. “The only way to do that is through education.”

“You will improve their lives.  How? By educating them well,” he adds. “Education must be a priority for societies to progress. This is especially true for those recovering from decades of conflict. Education is the midwife of peace and stability in Somalia, if not more.”

On a recent visit to Mogadishu, he met with a range of international partners, including from the UN system. They included the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia (UNSOM), Catriona Laing, and the Deputy Representative for Somalia of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mandy Owusu, among others.

“Abdullahi’s life-story and efforts are a testament to the drive and potential of young Somalis to really contribute and make a difference to their country’s development – I commend him on his work and applaud the recognition he has received with the Nansen Refugee Award,” said Ms. Laing. “I hope he can serve as an example to many others.”

As it continues its path to peace and stability after decades of conflict, Somalia has made important strides in rebuilding its education system, with steps such as the introduction of a unified curriculum for primary and secondary schools and a standardized exam system.

However, challenges to education in Somalia remain – especially when it comes to education for IDP children.

According to a recent snapshot report produced by the Somalia Education Cluster, of which the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is a lead agency, this year “between 3.6 million and 4.9 million school-aged children in Somalia will not have access to formal education in 2024, and that nearly 2.4 million school-aged children will require humanitarian assistance to enable them to begin, return to, or remain in school.”

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