Recognition. Not as a refugee, but as a professional

por Santiago
Poch has always been the outsider, the one on temporary status, the foreigner. His local friends can go to university, become professionals and earn an income. But he cannot. Legally, he can’t go to university, he can’t become a professional, he cannot work. But after 25 years as a refugee, news arrives about an opportunity to gain a college diploma.

I was told all about the famous Poch (pronounced with a short “o” and “sh”) before I met him. He was the go-to guy, the connector, the one all the NGOs relied on for inside information. He knew everyone in the camps and “host” community. Poch spoke Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s official languages, as well as perfect English, his native Nuer, as well as Arabic, the official language of South Sudan. 

Unlike most refugees who have memories of their home countries, Poch has been a refugee for his entire life. 25 years of dependence on aid. 25 years of being the tall, dark foreigner. 25 years of being stuck to the refines of granted, sanctioned-off land full of mud-huts and straw fences. And 25 years of no citizenship benefits.  

“I was born in the camp. My mom fled the civil war (in South Sudan) after my father was killed. She was pregnant with me. Then, when I was in second grade a conflict broke out at the camps. It was afternoon shift at school. I started to run back home, but had to go to the safety zone. I never saw my mom after that. I don’t know if she’s alive today.”

So Poch grew up as a refugee with no family, fully dependent on the humanitarian aid that has been a well-known characteristic of western Ethiopia for years. He attended over-crowded schools and played football daily on the rocky, dirt fields as “the best goalkeeper in all the camps.” (in his own words)

When I first met Poch, the first thing I noticed was height. A common characteristic of the Nuer people is their large sizes (great for goalkeeping). The second thing I noticed was his motorola cell phone, a small brick of technology from the late 90s. People were constantly calling him and asking for help, where to buy this / sell that, where this guy works, when the next match would be, etc. 

Like many adults, Poch would make money buying and selling random things found in and around the camps. But when he became an adult he started working as an “incentive teacher,” which is just a fancy term given to refugee teachers who can’t legally be professionals. Meaning, they can’t be paid a living-wage, just the standard 700 Ethiopian Birr per month (about US$25) to ‘volunteer’ full time as teachers in primary schools.

Poch explained that many of these “incentive teachers” actually have college degrees from their home countries as professors, doctors, technicians, or engineers. Unfortunately, most of those certificates were lost or destroyed in the war. And even if they did carry the certificates with them, it’s unlikely they’d be recognized since refugee status doesn’t grant the right to hold a professional job. They were only teaching because the 700 Birr was the best option anyone had. And most refugees didn’t earn anything even close to that. 

Often, change only comes from the ground up. In this case, it was Poch and his friends. He explained:

“We asked for a meeting with school principals. We demanded, ‘Why can’t we get training to improve our skills?’ We are stuck here. Then we waited. Finally, it came.” 

At the Gilgel Beles College campus in western Ethiopia, Poch and I met in a classroom made of concrete bricks laced with mud. We sat at dusty wooden desks deteriorated from years of humidity due to the region’s harsh rainy seasons. We spoke in English about his experience of being a college student for the first time. 

“The classes are challenging. We are always running to class to not be late. You have to spend 3 or 4 hours just in one class. We have never learned like this in the camps.”

Poch is part of the first group of refugees selected to gain diplomas and become professional teachers. A government-ran and UN-financed programme brings 343 refugees to study and learn with their fellow ‘host’ Ethiopian students. The courses are taught in English, and they choose which track to study. They are provided with a full scholarship, which includes education, room and board, health care, and transport services to/from the college or camps. 

At the campus Poch showed me around. We toured the dorms, cafeteria and classrooms. It was in pretty rough shape – sewage overflow in the bathrooms, crammed dorms, mosquito attacks at night, and not enough mattresses for everyone. But Ethiopia’s education budget was limited, which means limited space and services, not just for the refugees, but for all students attending the school.

“But the hardest part of all is the food – injera and shiro for every meal. In our culture we don’t eat the same thing. But we are trying our best. And of course our goal is not to have better food. It’s about getting a diploma. So we don’t complain too much about the food. Most of the teachers in the camps don’t have the chance to get a degree or diploma. They are stuck. They are desperate. Some are doing bad things to get money. And this programme should not just sponsor the teachers, but other people in the camp. Some of our friends who are also there, like health workers, they’re all doing their best to serve the refugee community, but they get nothing like this.”

Poch is studying to be a physical education teacher. When he’s not studying or coordinating meetings and activities for NGOs, he’s out playing football with his friends or coaching his students. 

“With this diploma, the first thing I’ll do is continue teaching in the camp primary school. Since I am now given a chance to learn, I want to serve the kids at the camps so they can have better opportunities than me in the future.”

This article was adapted by the author for Pearls and Shit. The original article was published on UNICEF Ethiopia.