Canadian teen spearheads effort to help African refugee girls go to university with new book, Kakuma Girls
Saturday, September 10, 2016

A pen-pal project between teenage girls in Toronto and Africa is sparking a mission to fund the university educations of the girls that live in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya.

Clare Morneau, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Toronto's Havergal College, is the driving force behind Kakuma Girls (Barlow Books, 183 pages, $19.99), which opens a window into the difficult world of young female refugees and the relationships they build with their counterparts an ocean away in Canada.

"All the proceeds of the book are going to the university education of some of the girls in Kakuma, but the book is also about raising awareness of the disadvantages these girls face," says Clare, who launched the pen-pal project in 2014. "And it's a timely reminder that refugees are more than numbers. They are people with hopes and dreams who want to accomplish things. And they have a lot of potential."

Clare will be available for interviews on the UN's International Day of the Girl, October 11, 2016, to coincide with the release of Kakuma Girls. Following her internship in Geneva this summer at the Global Humanitarian Lab, a partner organization of the United Nations, the Global Humanitarian Lab named Clare their Canadian Youth Ambassador.

Through his work with human resources company Morneau Shepell, her father, Canada's Finance Minister, Bill Morneau, visited Kakuma Refugee Camp when the company donated a technology centre there. The need for a girls' school was glaringly obvious: only two percent of eligible children in the 200,000-person camp attend secondary school, and a narrow fraction of those are female.

With the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which established the camp in 1992 with the Kenyan government, the company built the school. In 2014, the first classes were held at Morneau Shepell Secondary School for Girls (MSSSG). The residential school houses more than 300 students from over 10 countries.

"My dad and I started to discuss the school often. These girls intrigued me; I wanted to know where they were from and how they'd arrived at the school," Clare writes in the book. "Not long ago, I knew nothing about refugee camps or Kakuma and many of my friends at Havergal didn't either. . .  By exploring the Kakuma girls' world, I had a chance to explore my own."

Thirty girls at Havergal signed up for the pen-pal initiative with an equal number at MSSSG. The first letter Clare read still resonates with her. It was from Rita Monday Tom, a young refugee who was reunited with her family in South Sudan eight years after being separated from them in 2006 when war once again ravaged her home country. Her family urged her to stay in her home country, but Rita had had a taste of education. She wanted more, and the life it could bring her, a life she couldn't have if she stayed with her family. Rita returned to the refugee camp — and MSSSG — on her own. She hopes to be a doctor one day.

"Education gives these girls hope," Clare points out. "It lets them believe in this chance for the future. And education really is the key. It allows them to find a job; it opens doors. If they get resettled to someplace like Canada, they have education that they can draw on."

In addition to the MSSSG girls writing about their lives and how they became refugees, the book includes background on the makings of the refugee crisis, challenges of life in the camp — including gender-based violence — visits to homes of some of the students and "the world according to girls," where girls from Kakuma and Toronto write on the same subjects, from what the future holds to spirituality to what "home" means to them.

In addition to the proceeds from the sale of the book funding scholarships for the refugee girls, tax-deductible donations can be made via the UNHCR Canada website at www.unhcr.ca/kakumagirls.

In her media availability, Clare can speak on topics including:

  • The need for increased awareness on issues facing refugee girls
  • The power of education at home and abroad
  • How Canadian girls can become citizens of the world
  • Her experience interning at the UNHCR this summer in Geneva, Switzerland as well as her new role as Global Humanitarian Lab Youth Ambassador

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Source: The Montreal Gazette / Clare Morneau