Wenasa Alaraba was only a baby when her parents fled with her in 1998 to escape a conflict in Africa that she didn’t even know about. They escaped to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which is now home to over 179,000 people from neighbouring countries seeking safety from war and violence.
She spent her entire life in the hot, dusty, crowded camp. The lack of resources abundant in North America made every day a struggle. “Everything is rationed in the camp,” she said. “Food is a problem. Water is a problem. Everything is a problem.”
The conflict separated her from her parents. She grew up with her stepmother in Kakuma. As the eldest of 13 children, Alaraba was expected to cook for and take care of her siblings. Every day she needed to walk far away from the camp to get water and make sure everyone had something to eat.
“School is not a priority”
The nearest primary school was an hour’s walk away. The schools in Kakuma are cramped and uncomfortable. Sometimes, the teacher didn’t even show up. These conditions lead to a high dropout rate among children.
“School is not a priority,” Alaraba said. “You can either go or not. In a small class you can find 500 students. We sat on stones. We had to squeeze in order to get a space so we could listen.”
High school was no different. Alaraba said even though there are so many students packed into one classroom, many more give up. The hunger, the heat, and the distance students need to walk force many to stop going.
As a young girl in Kenya, Alaraba was discouraged from even going to school. Girls are often forced into marriage at a young age and the responsibilities they are expected to have to their families place education far down on the list of priorities.
“My stepmother told me not to go to school,” Alaraba said. “There was a lot of work to be done at home. Even at the age of 10, I had to cook and fetch water for the other kids. Then after all that I also needed to study.”
Even with the hardships Alaraba faced just getting to school, she had to persevere.
“I knew that I wanted to make my life better,” she said. “I knew the only way I could do that was to pass through all those tough times. I always had a dream that I wanted to change the way I was living. I lived a tough life. A life of discrimination. I always knew one day I would change my life and it’s only through education that I would.”
Hope comes to Kakuma
Alaraba was finishing 11th grade when she first heard of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC). At first it was just as chit-chat between her friends. Then representatives came to her school. They encouraged her class to keep studying hard so they could have a chance to further their education.
“You saw that all the kids who didn’t want to live that life again striving hard in order to achieve that chance,” Alaraba said. “We also saw some students ahead of us who worked hard and managed to go. So I also decided ‘oh, why not? I can do it’.”
Getting selected for the WUSC program isn’t easy. Alaraba said out of six high schools in Kakuma each with thousands of students, only 20 students are chosen. It can be fiercely competitive. Alaraba described the competition as “like death.”
From the student’s end, the selection process is a series of interviews about why they deserve this chance. The first interview sees about 2000 applicants pass. Then other interviews are given until WUSC gets the number of students they are looking for.
Alaraba was selected to be sponsored by Dalhousie and came to the university last year. She is currently preparing to enroll in the nursing program.
She said what set her apart from the other applicants was her confidence and honesty.
“I would always say the truth,” she said. “I would say what was deep down and express how I can make it to my potential.”