Michelle Bellino received an ASC seed grant for her work on displaced youths’ access to educational opportunities and sustainable livelihoods in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Bellino’s study asks ‘how do displaced youth plan for their educational aspirations, and what mechanisms can better support them?’ ASC asked Bellino about her ongoing work, and the following Q and A unpacks some of the key issues and challenges of her research.

Congratulations on being awarded an ASRI seed grant for the collaborative project Lifelong learning in contexts of exile. Could you give a brief description of the work you plan to/will be doing for this seed grant?

Thanks! This is exciting because it gives my collaborators in Kakuma and me the chance to continue the educational outreach work we have begun together, while also studying the process more systematically. 

As population displacement becomes more widespread and protracted,  it is important to ensure young people’s access to educational opportunities and sustainable livelihoods. However, prolonged exile also destabilizes the value of school, as well as one’s sense of agency to shape a better future through the pursuit of formal education. Even when young people demonstrate academic achievement and develop a strong sense of efficacy as learners, they may perceive little control over the social and political forces that shape their future trajectories in exile. This action-oriented research study centers on designing and evaluating a public education campaign in Kakuma Refugee Camp, aimed at orienting secondary school learners and graduates to formal, informal, and non-formal learning and work opportunities in the host country context of Kenya. Formative and summative assessment will allow for ongoing improvements to education outreach efforts, and a unique study of information-sharing as a potential mechanism for youth empowerment in a context with limited educational and employment opportunities.

Have you been doing work on this topic for a long time? How has it developed out of your scholarly career so far?

I have always been drawn to the educational experiences of young people, both in and outside of schools, in contexts impacted by armed conflict and displacement. In these settings, I’ve been interested in how young people develop a sense of their potential as civic actors, how they learn what it means to participate actively and critically in a state or community that is experiencing conflict, violence, or political instability, or actively undergoing transitional justice processes. These questions of youth agency and belonging also sit at the center of this work and the collaboration ASC is supporting. In the context of Kakuma, questions about youth civic agency have taken on a new dimension in asking how non-citizens conceive of their participation in a space where they are expected to become self-reliant but not afforded social or economic structures that allow for this kind of autonomy. In looking at the role of schools, we ask how young people are oriented to the context of exile and the everyday discourses and practices they navigate that communicate their role and the civic norms that govern the camp context.  

The current project design is very much a product of the findings that came from previous years of collaboration in partnership with young people and committed teachers and UNHCR and humanitarian staff. One principal finding from our work was that there is a dominant, linear narrative of successful adulthood that is out of sync with the opportunity structure in this context. Less than 2% of refugees globally access higher educational opportunities, yet tertiary education is promoted as if it were accessible to all students who worked hard enough. There is a sense amongst many teachers and humanitarian staff with whom we spoke that orienting young people to the reality of limited opportunities and prolonged exile would disillusion students. What youth co-researchers found, as they became school-leavers themselves, is that an entire curriculum around what it means to be a young person in the camp and how to navigate and create opportunities was withheld from them. We also learned that there are very few spaces for young people to interact with one another, particularly across diverse national and ethnic groups, after completing school. When they were most challenged and most needed one another’s support, young people found themselves more isolated.

The network of Kakuma Youth Lifelong Learners that we are shaping intends to better connect young people to one another and support them in setting achievable goals while aspiring to look beyond the limitations of the context of protracted exile. Several of the youth co-researchers that I collaborated with over the past few years have been working to shape educational outreach materials and resources. Our new partner, Youth Voices Kakuma, a community organization founded by John Thomas Muyumba and led by a collective of refugee youth will take the lead on developing and sustaining this resource in hopes that this work continues to allow for dialogue led by refugees, for refugees.

As you know, ASC is committed to funding these types of grants because they often lead to larger projects and tremendous collaborative opportunities with scholars at African universities. Where do you hope this research will lead you in the future, and could you please tell us about the scholarly collaboration at the heart of this work?

Given that the study focuses on young people’s post-secondary opportunities, I see a lot of potential to partner with African scholars, including refugees who completed their basic and higher education in Kenya. I have been following innovative plans in the works to build a hub for higher educational opportunities in Kakuma. In 2015, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST), a Kenyan public university, built a satellite campus in Kakuma. Hundreds of refugees and Turkana youth (from the surrounding “host community”) have accessed tertiary education as a result of higher education coming to their remote location, rather than expecting them to leave their homes to access these opportunities. For refugees, spatial immobility is embedded in the experience of the encampment. Though this is a structural condition of the hosting context that many (including myself) would like to see reformed, expanding educational opportunities in this way recognizes that education is a human right to be upheld in all contexts and a necessity for survival for those living in exile for protracted periods.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work for this seed grant? Have you changed your methodology and timelines?

Of course, COVID has shifted the nature of the project and postponed the work during various phases of increased outbreaks in Kenya, school closures, and most recently threats to close the camp entirely. Like many of us, my collaborators and I tried to keep moving forward as if the plans would stay the same and only the timeline would shift, as we began meeting online.

But as time has gone on, we have had a few realizations. Kakuma is already a context in which young people experience protracted uncertainty. Our inquiry now has to account for the additional uncertainty that COVID has created and the ways that educational opportunities have shifted accordingly. In some ways, remote instruction has expanded opportunities for learning and interacting with diverse communities of learners. In other ways, COVID has coincided with the tightening of national borders and led to increased isolation, agitating existing access barriers and inequities. So we cannot ignore the new educational reality that COVID has shaped and continues to shape—which is a good reminder that all research needs to adapt to the lived contexts in which we work and participate.   

For example, overcrowded classrooms and material resource shortages are key challenges young people cite in their educational experiences. COVID has impacted how many students can be in a setting at a given time. How does this new restriction shape young people’s conceptions of educational access and equity? Has schooling become more or less relevant to their everyday lives in exile and the futures they hope to create? We hope our research can shed light on these questions, not necessarily in addition to what we intended to study—but in tandem with our initial questions and the shifting context in which young people live and learn.

The African Studies Center at U-M has a deep commitment to fostering collaborative research and scholarship in Africa and with its scholars. Through our seed grant competition, the ASC supports early-stage joint research projects bringing together U-M faculty and researchers affiliated with universities on the continent. We report here on the work that has been supported by recent ASC seed grants to showcase the breadth of this scholarship and to encourage other U-M-based scholars to consider applying for a Seed Grant award with one or more colleagues on the continent.