GUELPH — Listening to University of Guelph president Alastair Summerlee describe the living conditions in parts of East Africa leaves you with bleak, disheartening images.
There is no sugar-coating what the living conditions are for the hundreds of thousands living in refugee camps in Kenya and Somalia. But Summerlee says hope remains strong in these camps, and from that hope comes the potential to inspire further action, increased global awareness and better access to education.
Summerlee, chair of the board of directors of World University Service of Canada, went to the Dadaab camp in Northeast Kenya to look at educational programs in place there. He was in the camp the day the United Nations declared a state of famine to exist in both Kenya and Somalia.
“When the famine hit, there was a shift from victims of war (coming to the camps) to victims of famine and drought. Starting from January 2011 and for the whole of the year, between 1,000-1,500 people a day were walking into the camps — all starving,” said Summerlee, adding that over the past few years, the number of people coming into camps is expected to reach 750,000 by next year.
Summerlee describes the landscape and climate as rough and unforgiving, with long periods of drought followed by floods that destroy homes, farmlands and roads. The camps are made up of rows of tents tightly packet together in the hot, isolated desert.
“People have to contend with strong winds and drops in temperature at night, and there’s not enough supplies of wood to assemble any kind of sturdy, livable structure,” he said.
People in the Kenya camp get their food through distribution centres every 15 days.
“People have to walk five to 10 kilometres to get to the food distribution centres, and then wait in line, under the hot sun, all day,” said Summerlee.
“But what I found is that the prevailing sentiment is one of hope. I found people there would still be laughing and were still being positive because there‘s really nowhere to go but up. Things can only get better,” said Summerlee.
This philosophy is carried forward in the work done by World University Service of Canada, its Student Refugee program and associated campaigns such as Shine the Light.
Shine the Light is run through the Student Refugee program. It began in 2009, to address the disproportionally small number of girls in the refugee camps completing their education. Girls begin to drop out of school around the fifth grade and by junior high the boys outnumber the girls four to one. The girls are responsible for child care, family chores, and gathering water. The lack of electricity and limited time for study prevent them from completing their school work.
Shine the Light raised $10,000 to purchase solar lamps, allowing girls a chance to catch up on homework after sunset.
“We distributed 300 lamps to girls in primary and secondary schools in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, benefiting 1,000 girls,” said Sandra Oey, of World University Service of Canada.
World University Service of Canada, with support of partners, 60 Million Girls and Windle Trust Kenya, is providing after-school support for 980 girls, in camps in Kenya.
Local communities can chose which campaign to get involved with, but Oey said Shine the Light tends to be the most popular. “It really speaks about gender equality and empowering women.”
The Guelph chapter has been raising money to provide generators, textbooks and anticipates raising enough for computers. Forty microscopes, along with 32 knitted teddy bears, are expected to be shipped over to Dadaab this spring.
Summerlee said the hope is to develop related volunteer programs as well.
“It would be great if we could have a continuous cycle of volunteers go down for three months, to teach English. Remedial study support is also needed,” he said.
Summerlee shared his experiences and views about life in Dadaab through panel discussions as well as a lecture at the Guelph Arboretum last month. These lectures were in part, a fundraising initiative for the Shine the Light Campaign, but also addressed the recurring question about how much of a difference one person can make, when it comes to easing the suffering of millions of people, living thousands of miles away.
Summerlee says that the take-away feeling, and helpful advice he’s gotten is just to try to help one person at a time.
“Even though there are hundreds of thousands of people who need help, if you can help one person today, that could be one less person who needs help tomorrow.”