Dadaab, Kenya: Disability is not Inability!


Welcome to Dagahaley Refugee Camp in the Kenyan town of Dadaab. We are at Juba Primary School, Special Needs Education unit.  In this class, there are eight pupils - 5 girls and 3 boys - all of whom are visually impaired.

Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world, with almost 370,000 people living here, many of them since they have fled the civil war in Somalia more than 20 years ago. The kids in this class were born refugees, and if that wasn’t enough, they struggle with their handicaps. One girl strikes my attention; she wears a green hijab and sits in front of a braille machine. Her name is Fatuma Aden Abdi, she is eight-years-old and 90 percent visually impaired.  

Fatuma joined this school two years ago and she is happy to be here. She still cannot speak English that well so teacher Dahir Barey translates for us. In the beginning of her schooling, it was not easy because other regular pupils used to make fun of her along the way when she had to be guided by her older sisters. But now things are different. She has gained courage and masters her route all by herself. 

Fatuma’s teacher informs me that she has also made very good progress in her learning and she can now read and write by use of the braille machine and other teaching aids. Sadly, this unit is one of the most underfunded and the teachers have to be creative and use aids and materials like small stones they pick up from the road to practice numbers and letters with the students.

Another heartbreaking revelation is made to me by teacher Dahir that the other seven pupils in this class apart from Fatuma are related, meaning that their visual impairment is most likely genetic.  Dahir further informs me that even some of the parents of the students are also visually impaired. Imagine living under very harsh conditions in makeshift shelters in the desert, queuing for food, fetching water from distribution points, all this with very limited eyesight. It is hard enough to make ends meet in a refugee camp, and therefore the safe haven of a classroom is an enormous support for children and young adults with special needs.

CARE is responsible for seven schools in Dagahaley camp where currently there are 15,386 students enrolled – 6,720 of them girls. The special needs classes are offered in all the seven schools with a current total of 494 students, 206 of them girls. Most of the learners with disabilities are integrated in the regular classes, but in two schools, CARE offers an extra curriculum for those with severe disabilities.  The special needs of the students vary from impairment in hearing, visual, mental, physical, speech and multiple disabilities . Samuel Odawo, a Kenyan teacher working in Dagahaley, is visually impaired thus understands the needs of the pupils, but he cannot do it alone.  He has the support and help of Dahir Barey, a Somali refugee teacher who helps the learners adjust to school life upon joining by facilitating their communication before they learn to speak English. Samuel brings the expertise of how to teach visually impaired students, Dahir’s eyesight serves to help organizing the class, study materials and aiding the learners accordingly. As a Somali and refugee himself, he can relate to the pupils and their parents at a personal level.  Through CARE, Dahir has undergone a series of Special Needs Education training for the visually impaired unit.  I ask him why he chose to work at the Special Unit and he tells me that he simply has a passion for the less fortunate and marginalized in his community.

Before I end my visit, I ask little Fatuma what she would like to be when she finishes her education and she says “A teacher, so that I can help other visually impaired children like me!”

by Mary Muia/CARE Kenya


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