Inside a red-brick building with a tin roof in western Rwanda, a group of young people are hard at work studying for a US-accredited university degree.
But these are no ordinary students: they are Congolese refugees for whom such a qualification could spell an escape from stateless limbo.
Over the past year, a Rwandan charity called Kepler has been offering refugees in Kiziba camp the chance to take online degree courses from the Southern New Hampshire University in the United States.
Since the mid-1990s, Kiziba has housed thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. It is currently home to 17,000 people, some of whom were born and raised in the camp.
Until recently a university degree was an impossible dream with local fees at a Rwandan university costing up to $1,200 (1,100 euros) a year, well beyond the reach of young refugees.
And even if they did get the money, the country’s main universities are all in the capital Kigali, which is a three-hour drive from this isolated hilltop camp.
But this year, a group of 25 refugees all in their 20s began studying communications and management.
“Before finishing high school, I had no hope of going to university but now I see it’s possible!” enthuses Eugenie Manirafasha, who was just six months old when her family fled to Rwanda in 1996.
Now she is one step closer to realizing her ambition of becoming a hospital director.
– Education for freedom –
The refugees follow an online version of the US course but at a less demanding pace, allowing them up to five years to complete the degree, with much of the first year devoted to getting their spoken and written English up to scratch.
Access to higher education “is very important for refugees all over the world,” says Nina Weaver, who runs Kepler’s educational programmes.
Even more so in Rwanda where refugees “have the right to work and to move around freely which is not the case in many other countries,” she says.
Having a degree gives them “an opportunity to integrate better” into Rwandan society, as well as a way to “give back” to the country that has taken them in, Weaver explains.
A university education also offers them an escape route from dependence on charity handouts, says Mark Roeder of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
“Tertiary education is one way to make refugees independent,” he told AFP. “It gives a boost to (the) refugee mentality and gives them hope they are not being forgotten by the international community.”
– Unique challenges-
There are currently 74,000 Congolese refugees living in five camps in Rwanda. Most are Tutsis who have suffered during successive rounds of conflict over ethnicity, land ownership and regional influence in eastern Congo.
With some of them in Rwanda for more than two decades, few are eager to return to neighbouring Congo. And their studies offer them the chance of a better life in Rwanda, or elsewhere, Roeder says.
But bringing the programme to life in a refugee camp is not without challenges.
The camp is not connected to the electricity grid meaning all the computers and the internet routers are powered by solar energy, which is not always reliable.
And students often have to balance their studies with the demands of supporting their families as well as dealing with other issues such as food insecurity.
For Manirafasha, this means holding down a job teaching the local Kinyarwanda language in the camp’s high school, which brings in around $30 (27 euros) a month.
“Difficult life conditions sometimes affect my studies, like on days when I haven’t had anything to eat or if I don’t have clothes to wear,” says this 20-year-old who lives with her parents and five brothers and sisters.
“It takes an effort not to give up.”