Under the shade of nodding acacia trees outside the University of Botswana’s School of Medicine, first-year medical students Linda and Xolile*, relax after their final exam – and discuss a future that until recently did not seem possible.
The women are the only refugees in their university class – recipients of newly established scholarships that are providing opportunities to refugees living in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone.
“Life feels more secure than it did before coming to university…we can make plans for the future,” said Linda, who left Burundi as a baby with her mother in 1998 for South Africa. Ten years later, they fled to Botswana to escape unrest affecting foreign nationals in their Johannesburg neighbourhood.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partner, Skillshare, have advocated to expand opportunities for high-performing refugee students, and are partnering with higher education institutions and the private sector in Botswana to offer scholarships to a growing handful of foreign students who, like Xolile, 19, and Linda, 22, receive high marks in secondary school.
“Life feels more secure…we can make plans for the future.”
Refugees in Botswana attend local primary and secondary schools alongside Batswana children. Many excel in their studies, but their options after secondary school are limited. The government offers higher education scholarships to cover all or part of tuition costs for Batswana students whose marks meet the required threshold, and some universities offer scholarships to students from lower income families. But refugees have traditionally not received these opportunities. Most come from families who cannot afford higher education, so they end up back in the Dukwi refugee camp, where almost all of the 1,010 refugees in Botswana live. There, they have few job opportunities.
“It’s hard being a kid in a refugee camp,” said Xolile,19, who fled social unrest in Zimbabwe in 2008 with her mother and sister. “My friends are all gone. They’ve been resettled to a third country, or they’ve gone back to Zimbabwe. Our future is here, as doctors.”
In the last year, the number of university places offered to refugees has multiplied. Last September,15 refugee students were able to enrol with scholarships. It’s a small number, but it represents a huge shift in how refugee students are treated in this country of 2.3 million.
It also serves as a reminder of the demand for higher education opportunities from displaced people around the world, which the non-profit, public and private sectors could help to fill.
In refugee communities across the world, the thirst for learning is as evident as it is in Dukwi. Progress lags behind demand, and while more than 77 per cent of refugee children are enrolled in primary school, that portion drops to 31 per cent in secondary school and only 3 per cent of young refugees enrol in higher education.
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse the small gains made. For girls in particular, the situation is bleak. Worldwide, many families feel forced to push their daughters into early marriage or to work in order to alleviate economic suffering.
Haskins, 25, fled Zimbabwe in 2008 and dreams of giving back to the country that gave his family shelter. He’s now the only foreign-born student in his class at Botho University in Gaborone, where he studies business management. After graduating, he hopes to say in the capital and provide for his mother and younger brother.
“I want a better life for all of us,” he said.
Haskins is the first refugee to receive a scholarship from Botho University but the school plans to offer more.
Golekanye Setume, the Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor, sees these scholarships as an investment in the community and the future of Botswana.
“I see Haskins’ integration into the almost-entirely Batswana student body as a successful first step. Next year, with UNHCR’s support, one place will become two,” he said.
Haskins, Linda and Xolile now feel invested in Botswana, and see their time at university as a transition towards a more secure future, plying their chosen trades in the capital.
“I feel like a Motswana,” Haskins said.
*Only first names have been used for protection reasons.