KAKUMA, Kenya — Under a thatched-roof shed at the edge of northwest Kenya, Achayo Loum logs on to her laptop to tackle the day’s assignment: writing a college essay on counterfeiting in the fashion industry.
The unrelenting equatorial sun scorches from above, and an explosion of chatter from shops just beyond a grove of spindly trees briefly breaks her focus. On nearby rutted dirt roads, women teeter along, balancing water jugs on their heads. A constant parade of honking motorcycle taxi drivers, carrying passengers, broken bicycles, and whatever else fits on the back seat, weaves past white United Nations vans, kicking up waves of dust. Children, many in threadbare clothes, skip down rocky alleyways and boot soccer balls into rusty, netless goals.
But Loum, 35, is undeterred by the din.
She is determined to escape the Kakuma Refugee Camp, her home for the past 18 years. It is one of the world’s largest havens for the dispossessed and stateless, a metropolis of low-slung mud huts and tin shacks that sprawls across 6 square miles of sun-baked plain, and teems with the people the world doesn’t know quite what to do with — 186,000 from 19 different countries who fled war and violence and now share little except a dream for something better, for home, and have no clear way to get there.
Loum has a notion, however. She is one of the first participants in a program at Kakuma that will, when she completes it, make her a graduate of a school she really only knows from website photos: Southern New Hampshire University.
What university? Where?
It’s true: The little-heralded regional university on the banks of the Merrimack River in Hooksett, which has relentlessly repositioned itself as an online learning powerhouse, sees an opportunity for overseas growth in the world of refugees, the innocent casualties and castoffs of human conflict.
Loum’s world has an unlikely visitor.
What will come of it?
While many US universities are chasing new markets in the world’s glittering cities, such as Dubai and Shanghai, Southern New Hampshire University is putting down stakes in more isolated corners of the world, where an opportunity to earn a college degree is a one in quarter million shot.
Last year, SNHU launched refugee associate’s and bachelor’s online degree programs in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, and Lebanon. The initiative builds on a refugee education program that the university quietly started in Rwanda in 2013. SNHU partners with organizations already on the ground that provide more direct support to students and deal with issues from mental health support to logistical help.
The university has charitable investors willing to help it gain a foothold in the developing world, $10 million in first-round funding from five anonymous Silicon Valley and New York-based foundations and families that hope to help address the refugee crisis and the challenges of distance learning. University officials say it could get 10 times that amount to expand, once its program has proved its merits on the ground.
In Kakuma, SNHU is working with Jesuit Worldwide Learning, which operates out of a small campus in the camp called the Arrupe Center. Twenty-two students have enrolled in the first class, a number expected to grow to 75 in 2019.
Across the five target countries, more than 830 refugee and host-country students are participating in SNHU’s online College for America program currently at no cost, studying business, health care management, and communications. Some are in camps, others live in urban centers among local residents.
“It’s raised the profile and credibility of the university,” said Paul LeBlanc, SNHU’s president. And if the university can succeed in bringing a low-cost, quality degree program to refugee camps, it can adapt the model to serve under-resourced areas in the United States, he said.
SNHU is reaching out to refugees just as the United States is retreating from its support. In the 2017 fiscal year, the United States resettled nearly 53,720 refugees, down from the close to 85,000 refugees it took in the year before. And the spigot is bound to tighten more. Earlier this year, President Trump, in a meeting with congressional leaders, reportedly referred to African nations as “shithole countries.” The welcome mat has been pulled.
To LeBlanc, meeting the dreams of someone like Loum — and there are millions like her around the world — with a college education seems not just an act of compassion, but also a boost for the university.
Loum fled the violence in South Sudan in 2001 and found a safe haven in Kenya as a teenager. But as for many others, her temporary stay in the camp has stretched into half her lifetime.
She has four young daughters now. They live in a two-room mud hut that she shares with her sister’s family after her own home in the camp was washed away in a flood last year. The space was already tight before Loum and her children arrived. Now, with her sister’s two teenage sons lumbering in and out and her 4-year-old daughter pattering around plastic chairs, water buckets, and a coal pit on the dusty floor, Loum barely has room to turn around.
Her oldest daughters are packed in their elementary school classrooms with more than 100 other students. And each day Loum, wrapped in a headscarf and in a brightly patterned skirt of her own making, hustles between multiple jobs, selling coal, making and selling bread, sewing clothes, all to earn enough so she can supplement the meager food rations of cereal, oil, and flour, supplied by the World Food Programme.
She knows the options for her girls are limited in a refugee camp. Most women in the camp, burdened by household chores, never complete their education. Loum is one of only four women in SNHU’s degree program in Kakuma.
This isn’t the way she wants her children growing up. She is determined to chart a different course.
“I need to be free, that would help, for my children to be free,” Loum said. “I want them to live a different life. If they remain in the camp, they will live the same life as me.”
Kakuma is a place of contradictions, an unsightly sprawl almost without borders, except for the hazy cropping of mountains on the horizon and the endless expanse of scorched, russet earth all around.
It is a place very deliberately set aside. Small aid flights make the choppy hour-and-half journey to Kakuma from Nairobi, the capital, three times a week. The nearest city is 80 miles away, with the connecting road a tattered ribbon of asphalt frequented by dangerous bandits.
Most of all, it is a place that shouldn’t have to be, one that makes no human sense, except of the broken kind.
So perhaps it isn’t so wildly absurd that Southern New Hampshire University is here. Just about everything else is.
The camp began as a short-term sanctuary. It opened in 1992 to shelter the lost boys and girls of Sudan, after their treacherous escape from a crumbling country. The world has gotten no safer since. Instead, richer countries have turned inward, slamming the doors to the displaced outside their borders.
For much of its recent history, this region of Kenya was inhospitable to all but a local tribe of herders with their goats and camels. But since the refugees began streaming in, it strums with activity. It is essentially the largest imaginable company town, with its own school system, hospital, mosques and churches, a competitive soccer league, and a power grid.
The camp’s roads can be bone-jarring even in a hulking SUV, and nearly impassable after a rainstorm, but they are still packed with merchants hawking just about everything in stalls painted upbeat turquoise and teal.
You can sip a cup of cardamom-spiked espresso while watching men shoot pool in a semi-dark Ethiopian coffee shop as slices of light, from slats in the roof, spill in. You can get your bike fixed and your hair cut along the nameless main drag. You can order a tailor-made dress and buy a secondhand pair of shoes. But this is still a refugee camp, and daily transactions happen in small sums of cash — the equivalent of 50 cents for a ride on a motorcycle taxi called a boda-boda, $2 for lunch, $15 a month for electricity.
Here in this remote place, women still gather just after dawn every day at communal water spouts to fill yellow water gallons for their families, a ritual as old as time. Then, at dusk, a handful of refugee entrepreneurs crank up their generators, bringing criss-crossed ropes of black wire crackling to life, and supplying neighborhoods with a few hours of electricity.
This vast jumble that makes up Kakuma could not be further away in spirit and setting from SNHU’s leafy campus 55 miles north of Boston. The university was for most of its 85 years known as New Hampshire College, a struggling institution three or four rungs down that state’s higher education ladder. Then a new president arrived in 2003 with an entirely new vision for the place, one that reflected its snappy nickname: SNHU. And suddenly the world is literally the limit.
It’s this kind of drive and unorthodox thinking that propelled the 3,000-student campus to become a leading provider of distance learning with 102,000 online students and a $118 million-plus advertising budget.
In billboards and television commercials, SNHU has marketed itself to working moms, returning veterans, and low-income communities. In fact, almost half of its US undergraduates receive Pell grants, a marker of economic need, and nearly three out of four take out federal student loans to attend. A majority of its students are 25 years and older.
In some ways, SNHU’s target audience is no different than the for-profit education industry in the United States. But while for-profit schools drew regulatory scrutiny for defrauding students and loading them up with debt, SNHU positioned itself as a nonprofit alternative. It stresses that its accreditation standards are the same as traditional colleges and that it offers nontraditional students a rigorous education and a path to meaningful employment. In the United States, 49 percent of its students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years, lower than the national average of 59 percent, but far above the 23 percent average for private, for-profit institutions.
But with SNHU’s explosive growth have come some questions about academic quality. For example, this past winter, SNHU was forced to replace an adjunct professor who incorrectly told a student that Australia wasn’t a country and gave her a failing grade. SNHU apologized to the student, reimbursed her tuition for that course, and explained it all on Twitter.
The university prides itself on being nimble.
Amid the immigration debate raging at home, SNHU helped launch an initiative to provide full scholarships for its online degree program to 1,000 Dreamers, immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as children and who don’t qualify for federal financial aid. It has partnered with companies, such as Aetna, Dunkin’ Donuts, and K12 Inc., to provide two-year, four-year, and master’s degrees, along with certificates, to their workforce. In its efforts to drive down the cost of education, SNHU is experimenting with the use of artificial intelligence to conduct initial reviews of student work.
Still, LeBlanc said SNHU is realistic about what it can achieve in refugee camps.
“We can’t solve the refugee problem, but the thing we can do is education,” LeBlanc said. “It’s an ambitious sort of thing we’re trying to do. We can’t control whether they get in and out of camp, but we can have a big role shaping their lives.”
Whether an SNHU degree will be transformative to refugees remains uncertain, when the barriers to opportunity can seem so daunting.
Many refugees feel that they can’t go home because home is still too dangerous, and they can’t go elsewhere unless a nation is willing to admit them or let them work. It’s often not obvious how or where the skills gained through SNHU coursework will be used.
Life in the camp is also hemmed in by its own oppressive rules.
In Kakuma, refugees can’t be on the camp streets after 7 p.m. or risk police harassment and fines for violating curfew. Even at the Arrupe Center, where the students have shared access to the Internet and computers, they can’t download anything for personal use and even watching CNN on their laptops earns them a reprimand for hogging limited bandwidth. They can’t leave the camp borders without authorized travel documents, which are difficult to come by. And in many countries, including Kenya, they can’t officially work. So they volunteer with nongovernmental agencies and, like interns, are paid a fraction of what the relief employees and nationals they work alongside earn.
Kakuma doesn’t have a gate, but most see no way to leave, said Ajak Mayen 31, a South Sudanese refugee.
Tall and reserved with a blinding smile, Mayen wants to be a lawyer, but one of the few employment options available for educated men in the camp is as school teachers in the system that the UN and relief groups manage here. So he took on a high-school classroom.
On a May morning, Mayen stood on the dirt floor before a blackboard with a diagram of the human heart taped to it as he launched into a description of ventricles and valves. His room is spacious by camp standards. There are no desks and 16 students, all boys, sit quietly on plastic lawn chairs and intently take notes, because they have no textbooks.
The camp is no longer life enough for him, Mayen said, and he is making plans to leave and return to South Sudan. But first, he wants to make sure he has a leg up, a way to differentiate himself from other refugees and the mass of workers competing for similar jobs outside this camp.
To do that, Mayen believes he has to get his college degree, and he is racing to finish.
On Sundays, the Arrupe campus is still, students and administrators are home with their families, but Mayen sits alone in a classroom lit solely by the sun, finishing his SNHU projects. He has made plans to quit his teaching job and focus entirely on the degree, a sacrifice of income and another motivation to finish fast.
His dreams are simple: He wants to return to the country he fled with his cousin’s family when he was 9 years old; he longs to start a family in South Sudan; eventually he would like to earn his law degree at a university there; perhaps he could enter politics and help his country find stability.
His friends in Kakuma have warned him that he is safer in the camp and that South Sudan remains a dangerous place in the throes of civil war with mass killings and severe food shortages. But for Mayen it is still home, and he advises refugees counting on resettlement that they are the real dreamers.
“This situation is not how I want my family to be,” Mayen said of the camp. “I want to raise my family in South Sudan. I want a nice job to support them. I want to come home to my children with an apple in my hand. When a father comes home with nothing, it doesn’t look good.”
The world’s refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced now number a record 68.5 million people, spread across the globe, but primarily in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Only 1 percent of refugees have access to higher education.
Most refugees are children who will spend an average of more than 20 years of their lives trapped in emergency shelter, because of continuing conflicts in their home countries and shrinking opportunities for resettlement in the United States, Australia, or Europe.
Except for a handful of onsite university programs, vocational training options, and scholarships for the luckiest and brightest few, who are plucked from camps and transplanted to campuses in Canada and elsewhere, young refugees are mostly aging in place.
The UN is aware of the scarcity in educational opportunities for refugees, especially as many become long-term wards of the international agency. In Kakuma, construction just started on a campus with planned computer rooms and lecture halls, where the UN hopes Kenyan and global universities can come together, share resources, and offer programs to the 1,500 students who complete high school there every year.
SNHU thinks its online College for America offers a pathway. The degree program is self-paced, offered in English, and costs less because it doesn’t rely on traditional classroom lecturers; students are directed to free online material and instructional videos. They must complete tasks and papers that show they have mastered skills such as using spreadsheets for data analysis or identifying works of art by their style and historical context. SNHU assessors in the United States, who review work by all College for America-degree seekers, grade refugees on their projects, papers, and presentations.
Students receive either a “mastered” grade or a “not yet,” which means they must fix problems the assessors have pointed out and re-submit their work until they get it right. Coaches at each site ensure students remain on track. Students have access to independent, online tutors, but many turn to their peers for help.
Internships and employment are a key component of the degree. SNHU hopes to prepare refugees for work, either with online companies while they are living in refugee camps, or with firms willing to apply for special government permits to hire skilled refugee workers, or back in their home countries.
If SNHU’s programs across the five countries prove successful by the end of 2019, the university will be able to tap into another $100 million in donor funds and expand to 20 camps across the world and reach 50,000 refugees in five years, LeBlanc, the college president said.
But success is hardly guaranteed. There are obstacles that students on most any other campus in the world don’t have to face.
Bol Daniel Maduk understands that well. Just getting to the Arrupe Center, where he can use the Internet, is an olympian feat for him.
He contracted polio as a child, lost the use of his legs, and arrived in Kakuma in his teens, carried from South Sudan on the back of his older sister. Now 33, fueled mainly by energy drinks, he hurtles through Kakuma in his jury-rigged, blue-and-red wheelchair tricycle. He squeezes by alleys lined with dried thorn-covered branches that serve as fences around many homes, skirts the free-range ducks, and passes by young boys engrossed in an intense game of dominoes. On dry days, he leaves most people in the dust. But when it rains and Kakuma’s massive potholes turn into brimming ponds, Maduk is stuck.
In the spring, just as the SNHU program launched, the region received some of its heaviest rainfall in years. Maduk wasn’t able to attend the new student orientation, didn’t have Internet access at home to complete his make-up assignments, and fell behind.
In May, when Chrystina Russell and Nina Weaver, the two American women who lead SNHU’s refugee education programs, arrived at the camp to check on student progress, Maduk was prepared to ask for a one-year deferral.
Russell convinced him to remain. She used her contacts in the camp to get him an appointment at a local trade school to fix his damaged wheelchair, a process that can usually take weeks. SNHU also tapped into an emergency program fund to pay for a car to drive Maduk to and from the Arrupe Center, about 2 miles from his home in the South Sudanese neighborhood called HongKong. SNHU plans to review whether the transportation worked and may consider more long-term options, such as assistance with solar panels to enable home computer use.
Universities can’t be blind to the sometimes unexpected needs of its students, said Russell, a former principal of a small, East Harlem middle school who joined SNHU in 2016.
“There are barriers to education that must be planned for,” Russell said. “We’re not going to buy the whole group glasses because the whole group doesn’t necessarily have a vision problem. But if someone can’t see, that student will receive the glasses.”
A month later, Maduk got caught up. He knows that his education has helped him earn more independence in the camp, where disabled people are otherwise hidden away or left in the care of their families.
A few years ago, nobody from his Dinka tribe would allow their daughters to marry him for fear that his genes carried some inheritable blunder. But he is now married to a woman from South Sudan’s rival tribe, they have two children, and they live in a compound where his neighbors have built their doors wide enough to accommodate Maduk’s wheelchair.
“People here value education,” Maduk said. “If you are well-educated, they fear you.”
Being educated has also elevated his standing among his family in the camp.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a younger cousin asked Maduk to help broker a dowry agreement between his family and his girlfriend’s family. More than 50 men, including Maduk, took their places in chairs lined up under one of the few mature trees in the neighborhood. By all outward appearances, it looked like a treaty negotiation between nations, but the conflict was over what amount of cash and cattle constituted fair price for the boy’s family to pay for the girl’s hand in marriage. With a nod of his head, Maduk called on younger relatives to get him water or to check on his family, as the discussions dragged on for hours.
That respect has been hard won, but feels fleeting. So Maduk turns to his education and a hope that one day he will start his own school for children with special needs.
“I am trying to close the doors to all the weaknesses,” he said. “In this world, life is all about resources. And a world where . . . you can manage by your own self, is a nice one.”
Successes here stand out, because disappointment is such a constant companion.
In Kakuma, depression and suicide are an ever-present problem; many turn to drugs or an illicit alcohol brewed by refugee women for relief, and men with little to do stand idly on the street.
“Sometimes, when I am out there, I see several things that are tempting,” said Tadicha Hussein Jillo, 25, an Ethiopian refugee and SNHU student. “I see people relaxing and I wonder why can’t I be there.”
Lately, the temptation has grown stronger as the fragile world Jillo has built since being shipped to Kakuma from Nairobi four years ago has begun to fall apart.
The family that took Jillo in — when he was a scrawny young man with a paralyzed right leg who got caught up in Kenya’s crackdown on Islamic extremists, refugees, and those without the proper paperwork, like himself — are being resettled to Australia. Other friends from the camp have gone to Canada. A computer gaming business Jillo tried to start faltered because he couldn’t get the proper licensing agreements.
Then in May, Jillo found out he did not qualify for the next round of a college scholarship program that takes about 30 out of several hundred Kakuma students that apply every year to study at a Canadian university, with an eventual pathway to citizenship. He will be too old to reapply next year.
At least he had enrolled in the SNHU degree program, Jillo said, as he limped across the Arrupe Center, where he has become the de facto caretaker, opening the gates first thing every morning and on weekends.
It is now one of the few things that keeps him moored, offering a path forward and the promise of a better tomorrow.
“I will do this, then I am done with the education part of my life,” he said. “I have to move on.”
Russell, with SNHU, believes that the university can deliver on its pledge to these refugees. The university has seen results with its program in Rwanda, Russell said.
At the Kiziba Refugee Camp in Rwanda, 84 students have enrolled in SNHU’s program since 2015. So far, 24 have graduated with an associate’s degree and are now pursuing bachelor’s degrees. Four students have completed the SNHU bachelor’s program.
Most of the Rwandan students are employed within six months of graduation, a transition that has been easier in that country because the government allows refugees to work. Fewer than one in three students in Kiziba were women when the program launched, but now the group is evenly split by gender. Getting more women like Achayo Loum in Kakuma’s program will be one of the primary focuses of SNHU in the months and years ahead.
Expanding access and helping refugees use their education to find better jobs will also be a key measure of SNHU’s success. The university recently posted a handful of online internship opportunities for Kakuma students. One of its students will soon start a three-month internship with a education technology company launched out of MIT.
In May, SNHU tried to reach out to more potential employers by deploying an approach familiar in American business but pathbreaking here: a networking fair. Russell and her partner Weaver picked out a place where few of the refugees had been before, an event hall a mile outside of the main settlement ordinarily reserved for weddings.
The Saturday before, as the afternoon sun cooked an Arrupe classroom into a sauna, Russell practiced introductions and small talk with the students, brainstormed possible questions to keep the conversation moving, and warned them against asking for a job immediately.
The university had invited about two dozen local leaders, including restaurateurs, UN officials, business representatives, and the refugee food wholesaler dubbed “the millionaire.”
The students wanted badly to impress.
Russell took the men shopping for button-down shirts. Loum, who wants to start a business with other women refugees sewing dresses and purses, spent hours in the evening cutting and stitching a dress-suit for the occasion. Maduk made sure that chairs were available in the hall, so people could sit, and he could speak to them at eye-level from his wheelchair.
Initial nerves gave way to what the students would later call an “epic” event. They chatted as equals with UN officials and even some tycoons. The event ran long. Some students exchanged names and numbers with potential employers.
Giddy and laughing, everybody posed for a group photo after dinner.
Then chaos erupted. Students dashed into the two vans waiting to return them to their respective settlements, bodies crushed beside each other. In the scramble, some students mistakenly hopped into the wrong vehicles. Maduk pumped the handles of his wheelchair, reaching his car in seconds, and loaded his body into the passenger seat.
Everybody had lost track of time. The sun was setting. Curfew was fast approaching. There was word that there might be police patrolling the roads.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes
@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.