By Koen Timmers
We are living in an era in which refugees have become ubiquitous. Due to war and conflicts in places like Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and DR Congo, many people are on run.
But how do you talk about refugees, conflicts, and poverty without turning them into clichés and without having eye-rolling students?
By sharing uplifting stories and showing pictures, we can create some impact, but let’s be honest …
with the “all news on demand” culture we live with today, people get used to seeing and hearing the bad news, right?
This is why I want to try to put my students in refugees’ shoes and give them all the facts, so they can make connections and get a broader perspective of what’s really going on.
This is how Project Kakuma started.
Two years ago, I had a Skype call with Moses, an outreach assistant at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. The Kakuma camp houses 200,000 refugees who fled from war and hunger in Somalia, Burundi, DR Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, and other conflict-ridden regions in sub-Saharan Africa.
At Kakuma, 55% of all refugees are children. Some of them were born in camp, while others arrived weeks ago. Many kids who arrive alone are not sure where their parents are, and hope one day they’ll arrive in the camp.
I believe that education is a human right, so I decided to help increase the level of education in the camp by having Skype calls with refugee teachers and students.
Skype Successes and Setbacks
During my first call, I trained the Kakuma teachers, but suddenly realized I was kind of naive in thinking that having a Skype call with them was going to be like having a Skype call with my friends and family. The teachers told me Kakuma has 30 schools, each having up to 200 students and 20 classrooms.
The schools have very limited resources: they have no computers nor even power supply, insufficient furniture, and a textbook ratio of 1 textbook per 10 students. Many classes were taking a look at a single laptop screen.
I decided to send my personal laptop to the camp, created the website www.projectkakuma.com, and started a collaboration with FilmAid, which is an agency in the refugee camp. FilmAid shared internet, paid for power generators, and two of their outreach assistants were dedicated to the Skype project.
The Skype calls were an instant success. Some fellow educators and I trained both teachers and students, and the Kakuma teachers began to request Skype lessons on daily basis. I created a global network of 150 educators over 45 countries willing to participate by offering free education via Skype.
But not all was rosy.
- Time zones were an issue, so some teachers had to teach during nighttime.
- Sometimes we needed to try for two hours before we were able to establish a connection, which was a nightmare for teachers who involved their students in the project.
- My laptop and a projector I bought disappeared.
- FilmAid lost interest in hosting the Skype calls.
The project became a burden because of the costs. So I set up a crowdfunding campaign, which allowed us to ship 20 more donated laptops.
Then we had to take care of the power issue. We choose a sustainable solution—solar energy. We stumbled upon an agency called We Care Solar (www.wecaresolar.com), which produces “solar suitcases.” These suitcases include one solar panel and a battery which allows charging for five phones and five laptops a day.
We were extremely happy that the suitcase also resulted in an unexpected side effect. Thirty students are sleeping in the school because the distance to their homes is too large. Each day, these children had to buy a lantern (priced $0.80) in order to study during nighttime. Because the solar suitcase provides light, these students don’t have to pay for lanterns anymore.
Last but not least, we were able to establish an internet connection in three schools.
We were now completely independent, and able to teach the refugees on a regular, weekly basis. To make the project sustainable, we employ one refugee in the camp as a consultant. He will train the teachers how to use Skype and will take care of technical issues.
Engaging Global Classrooms
A lot of international educators and students were very engaged. They started to collect money, send storybooks, and an Indian teacher even sent robot car kits so she was able to teach her refugee students STEM.
During the Skype-a-thon, a yearly event initiated by Microsoft, we connected classrooms more than 24 different countries to the Kakuma kids over a two-day period—that’s 175, 000 virtual miles. Watch our presentation here.
Teachers across 45 countries have been teaching the Kakuma refugees. Below, classrooms from Norway, Austria, Spain, Denmark, and Austria again connect with students in Kenya.
When I talk about this project, most people really like the fact we are offering free education to the refugees—but they forget about the fact we also bring empathy into the global classrooms. Apart from teaching students math, science and English, we also talk about culture, religion, and habits.
And sport. They love to talk about football.
During my last Skype lesson, I taught the refugee students about body systems. Although I had to wait 45 minutes before establishing a connection and spent three hours preparing my lesson, it was a wonderful experience. The students learned about organs, some fun facts—and which body systems are being used while playing soccer.
And yes! Education matters. Refugees who are educated have the best chance to be transported to Canada, the USA, or Europe. During the past year, teacher Abdul was selected to be brought to the U.S. state of Georgia, where he now lives with his family.
We are offering the global students a direct perception into refugee lives. We are fighting misinformation and polarization.
And knowing that the refugees are locked into the camp, we are basically unlocking their world by having a simple Skype call with them.
Teachers who want to bring the world into their classroom via Skype can join the project by navigating to http://projectkakuma.com.
Koen Timmers is an educator, author, and keynote speaker based in Belgium. Koen has been a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, and uses a specific educational approach that he calls CARE! (Collaboration, Guidance, Real problem-solving, Empathy, and ‘the ! factor’ – being responsive to the student). Learn more about Project Kakuma here!