MASSAWA, Eritrea, – Nothing has deterred Somali refugee Hali Shukri Ibrahim from her passion to get an education. Not an early forced marriage, nor war, nor separation from her parents, husband and baby son, nor exile.
In fact, the 26-year-old says becoming a refugee gave her the prized opportunity to study, and stoked her ambitions. Goals that back home, in Mogadishu, capital of then war-torn Somalia, would have been limited to raising a large family, she says.
Now a Grade 12 student at an Eritrean government high school near her home in Umkulu Refugee Camp, Hali is dreaming big. “I want to study hard, go to the university and become a doctor,” she says. “When I came to Eritrea, I could hardly speak and write English. Now I am somewhat fluent and can write it.”
It was her effort to learn English that started her on the meandering journey that brought her to this Red Sea port town, where more than 3,400 fellow Somalis live in the refugee camp.
At home in Mogadishu, she listened to the BBC to improve her English. One day in 2008 she heard on the BBC Family Tracing Programme that her parents were in Eritrea – and looking for her.
She had been a refugee with them there once before, in 1996 at the age of nine, but she went back to her native Somalia when fighting broke out later along the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea – leaving her entire family behind. Back in Mogadishu, she was married off to a complete stranger before even finishing primary school.
Once her husband learned her parents were looking for her, in an act of self-sacrifice he agreed to divorce her. He even helped her set off alone to find them. Parting from her two-year-old son, Hali set off through Djibouti before finally achieving the long-awaited reunion with her ageing parents.
Life in Umkulu Refugee Camp brought an unexpected benefit: Hali attend to the government school, 20 minutes from the camp.
“I wouldn’t want to be doing anything right now, other than studying,” she says. Today, she uses her new language skills to work part-time as a Somali-English translator.
After rejoining her parents and getting a priceless education, her joy became complete when, five years after she had last seen him, UNHCR reunited her with her son, now seven. He too is now getting an education in the camp.
“My joy is boundless. To have my son back with me is to restore part of me that was dead,” says Hali. “I’m happy to have him with me and take care of my diabetic father,” she adds. “Of course I have to juggle between my schoolwork and family responsibilities, but I am not complaining.”
This camp has just one primary school, attended by more than 1,100 pupils in kindergarten to Grade Eight. Because there are fewer than 100 secondary school students in the camp, “it is not cost effective to build a secondary school, and therefore UNHCR prefers that the refugee are integrated in the Eritrean public schools,” says Viola Kuhaisa, education officer in UNHCR’s Nairobi Regional Support Hub, who recently worked with UNHCR’s Eritrean team in the camp.
For Hali, it doesn’t matter whether the school is inside the camp, or 20 minutes away, as long as she gets an education. “If I was in Somalia,” she says, “I’d be married with five or more children. I am eternally grateful to UNHCR for allowing me to pursue my dream and passion.”