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Recognizing the potential, talent, and dreams of young refugees


Vivian Onano is a social entrepreneur and humanitarian.

Today, there are nearly 80 million displaced people across the world. The majority of them are children and young people with dreams and aspirations. Unfortunately, they have found themselves in limbo for years, waiting for an opportunity to rebuild their lives and look towards a future filled with hope.

Last year, I visited the Kakuma Refugee Camp in the northern part of Kenya. The camp was established in 1992, and is home to about 196,000 refugees and asylum seekers from 10 different nationalities. I visited the camp to meet with young people and learn about their challenges in accessing education, as part of my work on a Global Education Monitoring report, focused on refugees and migrants.

At the camp, I met with many brilliant young leaders. We had a session with some of the youth leaders and all they requested was access to opportunities. They aren’t interested in handouts, only in a good education that will enable them to propel themselves to greater heights. It reminded me of my own journey and how with access to quality education and exposure to opportunities, I have been able to develop, grow, and pay it forward in my community.

The power of education

One of those leaders was Nhial Deng from South Sudan. Nhial Deng and his colleague Pascal Zigashane, co-founder of URISE Initiative for Africa, took me to visit the schools and community-based organization. I was blown away by the optimism, zeal, and determination from everyone I interacted with.

For the past 10 years, Kakuma has been home to Nhial. He faced numerous challenges in rebuilding his life, but also found hope in education. Education enables refugees to secure a more hopeful and brighter future for themselves and their communities.

As a young person living on the sideline of the society, he has strong hopes for a brighter future and made the bold decision to never stop looking up. This helps him to make the most out of every single opportunity that comes his way, and he has been able not only to transform his life, but the lives of people around him.

He is passionate about the Sustainable Development Goals as a key to transforming our world, and his work revolves around advocacy, communication, quality education, policymaking, peace-building, gender equality, and social entrepreneurship. He firmly believes that young displaced people like himself have a significant role to play towards building a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. He has participated in several initiatives, locally, regionally, and globally.

In March 2019, one week after I left the camp, he was selected as a Global Changemaker, an incredible network of young people making a difference in 180+ countries. This year, he was selected as one of the ONE Campaign Champions for East Africa and a Women Deliver Young Leader for the class of 2020. Through these organizations, he will be able to learn, exchange, and build a robust network with other like-minded young people.

His voice is important and should be part of global conversations about issues that affect his community.

Creating opportunities to thrive

This week marks World Refugee Day, and we have to recognize refugees’ potential, talents, aspirations, and dreams. We have to work together with them to help create opportunities that will enable them to thrive and see their dreams through.

These brilliant young people have all it takes to design solutions to their challenges, and it’s imperative to listen to them. They are future experts in health, education, communication, engineering and technology.

Nhial’s story gives me hope, but also constantly remind me of the huge potential being overlooked and wasted in refugee camps across the world. As we all accelerate our efforts to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, let’s ensure we leave no one behind, including those living in refugee camps, and the most marginalized communities. Let us reaffirm our commitment and double our effort, to make sure everyone, everywhere can lead a life of dignity and opportunity.

During my visit to Kakuma, one youth leader said, “refugees are human beings and would like to be treated as such.” The term “refugee” is not anybody’s name, but a label based on their current life situation. Refugee’s human rights need to be protected, and they should be treated with respect and dignity.

These young people challenged and inspired me, with equal measure, when they shared their powerful stories of strength, courage, and determination to succeed.

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