-All around her she could see people barely surviving, young and old beaten by the vagaries of a refugee camp, fathers unable to fend for their families, and mothers watching helplessly as disease wasted their children
• Where she had been performing exceptionally well in the lower classes, she failed miserably, scoring a miserly 177 marks out of the possible 500
• In Dadaab, she has become the talking point, something the community can be proud of, for once. Young girls are encouraged to read and “be like Fatuma”.
Somalilandsun – On September 15, a young, towering Somali girl landed in Toronto, Canada. Looking at the 20-year-old, everything seemed just fine.
She did not look like she would be a befitting image on a booklet about squalor and abject want, especially if the narratives in mainstream media are used as yardsticks.
Just a few hours earlier, she had been driven hundreds of kilometres from Dadaab, home to the world’s largest refugee camp, to Nairobi, from where she would take the flight to Toronto.
She was heading there, not to tour the land or visit a friend, but to study chemical engineering at the prestigious University of Toronto, which is ranked at position 24 in the latest Academic Ranking of Word Universities.
To make it to such an institution of higher learning from the dusty Dadaab is a great achievement, but it is much more extraordinary for a girl to leap that far in a society that still favours boys.
Just before she left, Fatuma Omar Ismail, 20, granted DN2 a short interview at Hagadera, one of the camps within the Dadaab complex. She grew up here, surviving on two things — the donor-dependent economy of the place, and her instincts.
Like many her age here, life did not look that promising. No, not at all. All around her she could see people barely surviving, young and old beaten by the vagaries of a refugee camp, fathers unable to fend for their families, and mothers watching helplessly as disease wasted their children.
But it was not just sadness that characterised her early childhood. Children tend to be naïve, almost ignorant.
As such, as the mothers and fathers struggled to feed their families, their children, among them the young Fatuma, jumped around, singing nursery rhymes and maybe jumping rope. Dadaab was home, and home is always a celebration.
This, though, had not always been home. Fatuma was born in Kismayu, a port city in the Lower Jubba region of Somalia best known for once being a stronghold of the notorious Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group, Al-Shabaab.
Her parents fled the country when the civil war gobbled up all that they had. After a long and tortuous journey, the family arrived in Hagadera, where they were settled inside the refugee camp. They have been there since.
When she came of age, Fatuma joined a primary school in the camp, where she slowly learnt how to read and write under the watch of inexperienced teachers, some of whom were primary school dropouts.
To supplement the little she learnt in school, her father bought her books and encouraged her to read them at home. He told her that everything was possible, that she could break away from the yoke of refugee life if she wanted, and that books were her only hope out of the squalor she had known all her life.
“My father never disparaged me for being a girl, unlike what many of my peers went through,” she remembered. “He always wanted the best for me.”
As a young girl, Fatuma listened to her father, reading her books diligently and seeking help whenever she was stuck. But as she approached the teenage years, the rebellious nature of the age started to stealthily replace the uprightness that had guided her all through.
She stopped reading at home, arguing that she had a retentive memory, so she did not need to put in the extra effort.
She was wrong, and the folly of her thinking hit her when she joined Standard Seven at her school. Where she had been performing exceptionally well in the lower classes, she failed miserably, scoring a miserly 177 marks out of the possible 500.
Her father hit the roof. How could she, he asked, fail so badly when he had dedicated so much time and money to providing her with all the books she needed, and more? Fatuma knew her father was justified.
She had performed badly in the exams because she had stopped taking matters seriously, and that had to stop. And so she buried herself in books.
It worked. By the time she sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination in 2008, she was so prepared that she did not expect to get less than 400 marks out of the possible 500.
When the results came, however, she had scored 36 marks less than her 400 target. “I was disappointed,” she says, “even though I was still the best girl in the entire north-eastern region.” As a result of her sterling performance, she received a scholarship to study at the Kenya High School the following year.
Elated, she boarded a bus to the capital city, home to Kenya High. She was, however, not prepared for the culture shock that awaited her; first of all, she had to wear the school uniform, leaving behind the hijab she was accustomed to, and which she had always viewed as a religious obligation.
She was uncomfortable about it at first, but she settled down and life became a little bit more bearable. The ban on her hijab, however, troubled her for a number of days, but she did not report it to her parents because, she says, “they would have immediately withdrawn me from the school”.
The hijab is a mandatory head covering for Muslim girls, and has been a source of friction between conservative administrations and religious purists, both locally and internationally.
In April this year, for instance, female Muslim students put their head teachers on the spot for forbidding them to wear, among other religious pieces of clothing, the head scarf while in school.
“The rule is putting us at a crossroads,” said Rehema Waqo, a student from northern Kenya during the sixth student leaders’ conference at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi.
“Should we go against our religion and stay in schools, or should we leave a very good school that we have been admitted to and transfer to a Muslim school?”
The issues she was raising were the same that had troubled Fatuma years earlier, and to divert the dilemma she buried herself in books once more. The learning environment was far much better than that in Dadaab, and Kenya High was well-equipped and staffed.
“The teachers were quite an inspiration and the laboratories well stocked,” she says. It was while at Kenya High that she noticed she had something for chemistry, yet she had always thought she would fare better in biology and medicine.
“The one thing I loved about Kenya High School is the fact that students were told they could become anything they wanted,” she remembered. “They believed they could make changes in the society. But students in Dadaab are always told they are refugees, and that constant reminder of their destitution tends to cloud their visions.”
In 2012, Fatuma sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), scoring a 78-point A-. A year later, she was selected for the World University Service of Canada (WUSK) scholarship.
As she prepared to travel to Canada, Fatuma started talking to students back home in Dadaab. She wanted to change their attitude towards school, and of course reading.
Even refugees, she told them, can perform equally well in national examinations if they prepare well in advance.
“You would think the girls would listen to me, but the boys were much better. The girls were disgruntled because they did not want a fellow girl to lecture them,” she said.
On her relative success, she said, “It does not matter whether you are in Dadaab or Nairobi, if you really work hard in school, it will definitely pay off”.
Fatuma strikes you an as open-minded person, some sort of liberal, but she is also equally God-fearing. Before she set foot in class, she studied the Quran and other books of Islam at a madrassa.
A decade from now, when she completes studying and makes a name for herself, she hopes to establish a foundation to assist women and children back in Somalia.
In Dadaab, she has become the talking point, something the community can be proud of, for once. Young girls are encouraged to read and “be like Fatuma”.
They might not all make it to Toronto, or to any other high-end university for that matter, but, as you read this, a girl who was once just like them will be dealing with test tubes at one of the best universities in the world.
Hard, but not impossible. And that, for a lot of girls in Dadaab, as indeed anywhere else, is such an inspiration