Since being launched by UNHCR 20 years ago, the DAFI scholarship programme has helped more than 6,000 refugees from countries around the world to pursue life-changing higher education studies. Funded by Germany, DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) began in 1992 with 220 students from 16 countries. Today, it provides funding support for 1,700 scholars in 39 countries. The graduates have gone on to successful careers, including many who have returned to their countries to play an important role in rebuilding efforts. Those who have benefited from DAFI scholarships include Khadra Abdullah Mohammed from Somalia and Shadrach Saizia Gbokie from Liberia. Khadra was awarded a DAFI scholarship to study midwifery at a health institute in Aden. She graduated in 2010 and now works in south Yemen as a health project officer for Save the Children (UK). Shadrach is a 28-year-old Liberian refugee in her last year of a sociology degree at the University of Ghana in Accra. The two recently told UNHCR how DAFI has changed their lives.
“I was born in Somalia in 1986 and I am the fourth child, between three sisters and a brother. Our life in Somalia was very happy until my father suddenly died. Then all our troubles began because of racism; my parents belonged to different tribes and there were many problems between the two sides. My mother became scared, especially when the civil war started [in 1991]. She was worried about losing her children, so she decided to take us across the sea to Yemen, where we became refugees and I grew up and studied.
“If I talk about my time in Yemen, I think of education. I believe education is like oxygen; it is everything. I’ve seen my mother working in hard jobs because she did not have the education to do anything better. This made me determined to study and learn so that I could help my family, especially my mother.
“I completed my primary and secondary education at a school in the Ma’ala area of Aden When I had finished high school, my friends told me about a scholarship programme called DAFI, which I had never heard of before. I applied, thinking I’d never be successful because of the strong competition. I’ll never forget the moment when I found out that I had been accepted because it changed my life forever.
“Since graduating, I have been working as a midwife and helping some of the most needy and vulnerable women in remote areas of Imran and Lahj governorates, which are two of the most deprived regions in Yemen. Literacy rates among women are low and they are ill-informed about health issues. I promote a healthy culture and I train the traditional midwives to work professionally so as to reduce the high mortality rates among pregnant women and those giving birth.
“I am happy in my work because now I can provide this important service to Yemeni people, giving back something to people who have treated me and my family as any Yemeni citizen. They taught me what it means to give and love others without discrimination, and I am looking forward to returning to my homeland to work in the health sector and help rebuild when the war is over. My goal in life is to do my best in my work and, who knows, if I work hard, I might become the next Save the Children country director. I know that without the DAFI scholarship, I would not be the person I am today.”
“The years of civil war [1989-2003] had an enormous affect on Liberia. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, raped or abused. Many children were left motherless or fatherless with no one to turn to for help, and huge numbers fled to other countries [or were forcibly displaced within Liberia].
Throughout this period, many young children like me were not in school. Our education came to a standstill. Most schools were closed, but in areas where schools were open, children only attended classes once or twice a week due to the fear of armed attacks at any moment. Our dreams of becoming doctors, nurses, pilots, scientists, lawyers, bankers, economists, accountants, managers, etc, were fading fast.
“After international intervention, peace was restored [in 1996] and Charles Taylor was elected as president in 1997. Many Liberians were relieved and felt that the country was now back on track. In October 1996, at the age of 12, I started 1st grade at the Mildred Taylor Academy in [the Liberian capital of] Monrovia. During my second year I was promoted to 4th Grade. It took me only three years to reach 6th Grade. All this time, I was being supported by my mother, who was a petty trader at the market in Paynesville [a suburb of Monrovia]. There was no contact with my father and we did not know where he was. My mother rented a room for us in Paynesville, where I attended school before we fled to Ghana in 2001.
“We left because of concern about the security situation in the capital. [The second Liberian civil war began in 1999 and ended in 2003]. Taylor was fighting rebels in the north and west of Liberia and young men and women were being arrested indiscriminately and taken to the frontline to fight without any military training or experience. I went by road to Côte d’Ivoire with my mother, elder brother, two sisters and two cousins. When we got to Ghana, we were hosted by some family friends at the Buduburam Refugee Camp.
“Soon, I started thinking about continuing my education. A Ghanaian sponsor paid the school fees for me and my sister. I studied hard and became the head prefect of my junior high school. I won a place to study at Adisadel College, one of the oldest and best secondary schools in Ghana. However, there was no money to continue. Then a friend told me about the DAFI secondary education scholarship programme. I applied and was selected for sponsorship. This was the beginning of great things.
“My mother was no longer responsible for paying my fees. I was given an allowance for my textbooks, transportation, clothing. So I could go to school with a relaxed mind and focus on my studies . . . I eventually was accepted by the University of Ghana to read economics, history, political science and sociology. In 2008, I applied for a regular DAFI scholarship and was accepted. I will soon finish my final and, hopefully, become the holder of a BA in sociology later this year.
“This would not have been possible without the DAFI scholarship. DAFI has made me who I am today. Eight years ago, with no hope of continuing to secondary school, DAFI came to my rescue and gave me a brighter future. Today, my dream of becoming a leader in Liberia and helping other people is alive and well.”