Just over ten years ago, Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer visited the then remote Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda one of the oldest refugee settlements in East Africa. 

She met with UNHCR field staff and refugee leaders to talk about what kind of support was needed from Australians donors. 

Established in 1958 it covers an enormous area of 180 square miles and has been home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the region including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Naomi’s meeting ended in a partnership between Australian donors and Nakivale refugee settlement. At that time there were so many needs.

Nakivale only had six primary schools and no secondary school, limited health care with staff at the nearby maternity clinic living in tents, poor water supply, and no training or educational opportunities for the thousands of young people many of whom had been born in the settlement with few prospects of work or advancement.

Australia for UNHCR committed to building the first ever secondary school in Nakivale, funded a new water treatment plant and built a new maternity hospital. But our most ambitious project was the construction of a computer technology centre providing digital training and skills and most importantly connecting refugees for the first time to the internet and the wider world.

 

Refugees use a computer at the CTA centre in Nakivale. Many refugees have used computers to reach out to family members that they have lost contact with. © Australia for UNHCR © Image Supplied

Naomi remembers how passionate the refugees leaders were about the need for the computer centre.

While there were food shortages, big shelter needs, health and sanitation issues, they pushed for the development of a computer centre to provide skills training for the refugee community.

“They said, ‘Of course we need food, but we have been here a long time. We don’t have enough schools, there is nothing for the youth, and we have no connectivity. The rest of the world is moving on and we want to be part of that’,” Naomi said.

“I don’t think anyone should underestimate the difficulty of building a technology centre in what is described as a ‘deep field location’”.

“Transporting solar panels along muddy roads, getting the right technical support, setting up and networking 45 computers, training and employing staff we ended up putting an Australian consultant on the ground to help manage the project. Happily we all worked together, the refugees steering group, UNHCR and ourselves, to make it happen.”

“I don’t think anyone should underestimate the difficulty of building a technology centre in what is described as a ‘deep field location’”.

The CTA centre in the Nakivale refugee Settlement, west of Uganda’s capital Kampala. © Australia for UNHCR.

In 2011, the Community Technology Access Centre (CTA) was opened. The centre now offers formal education, basic digital literacy training and certification, long-distance learning programs, vocational and technical skills training and assistance with resumes and job searches.

It is accredited with the Ugandan education department so that those who complete a course receive a qualification that is recognised in Uganda and across East Africa.

It also has an internet café where refugees can use the internet for 1500 Ugandan schillings (about 50 cents). This money pays the salaries of the computer trainers so the centre is financially self-sustaining.

“With internet connection for the first time refugees were able to search for and connect with their families and friends they had lost in being displaced resulting in many people being reunited with their families and resettled,” Naomi said.

“This connectivity was literally life changing for so many people”

The computer centre also led to the establishment of Nakivale SACCO Bank where refugees can access microcredit loans to set up small businesses such as health clinics and sewing boutiques.

In its first year of operation, 262 students graduated from the CTA program. Since then, more than 3,200 students have graduated. Some have been hired by aid agencies in their data teams. Others have set up small computer businesses such as stationery shops, photo studios and video library shops.

“This connectivity was literally life changing for so many people”

Refugees attend a computer class at the CTA centre and youth centre at Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Southwest Uganda. © Australia for UNHCR

Yasmina was one of the first accredited trainers employed at the computer centre. Only 20 year old at the time, she had arrived in Nakivale with her family via Nairobi and Kampala after fleeing conflict in Mogadishu, Somalia.

“When I asked her what sort of difference the work and the centre had made, she replied: ‘It makes me feel more than a refugee’,” Naomi said.

“That simple statement summed up for me what our computer centre meant to refugees in Nakivale. When Yasmina went on Facebook she wasn’t ‘Yasmina a refugee’ she was ‘Yasmina your FB friend.’ Access to technology meant both equality and freedom.”

Since then Yasmina has gone onto tertiary study in Kampala and now works for an aid agency herself.

With refugee situations becoming more and more protracted. The average time a refugee will remain outside their country is 20 years. Naomi said it is crucial to look beyond the short-term situation and support the longer-term development needs of the community.

“The reality is, refugees in Nakivale will probably be living there and staying there for many, many years, if not their whole life,” Naomi said.

“Our purpose empowering refugees for a better future is not just about keeping people alive with food, water and shelter but also giving people an education, skills and a livelihood.”

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