At a youthful age of 22 years, Ishimwe Shem Vanessa a Rwandan national who grew up in Kyaka refugee camp in Western Uganda where she began living in 2008, has been able to tap into several opportunities in Uganda and has even restored hope of other refugee children and youths in the country. Amidst several of life’s challenges like the fatal accident that almost claimed her mother’s life in 2009 forcing Vanessa and her siblings to drop out of school in 2012, she has soldiered on.

“I am the third of four children that my single mother our only support has struggled to raise amidst several challenges and changes in our lives. When my mom got a very terrible accident, my siblings and I were all in school. It was a trying time and life pushed us to the limit. Fortunately, she did not die and we were so lucky that my mom’s friends kept bringing us food until she had fairly recovered from her injuries,” remarks Vanessa.

Despite these challenges and changes like leaving her home country – Rwanda at an early age and starting a new life in another country, Vanessa has grown up to become a very hardworking lady with a great desire to excel and pursue her goals this early in her life.

Vanessa’s hard work earned her a scholarship and – the golden opportunity to go back to school in 2016, where she was able to complete her secondary school education in 2017. Vanessa got a scholarship at Cornerstone Leadership academy due to the leadership potential portrayed while at Kyaka refugee camp and her outstanding engagement in the community, helping fellow youths to solve social and academic challenges.

Vanessa was among the many economically disadvantaged but academically talented applicants vying for the Scholarship but her tenacity, leadership qualities, demonstrated commitment to helping community and the grace of God saw her emerge victorious.

“I have always known that being a refugee will never stop me from pursuing my personal and professional goals. And, like my mother always tells me, I am only a refugee by status. I am in reality an African, who is bold and able to do things for the family and my community. I am optimistic that with the right attitude, mindset and focus on education, I will transform my family and my community. I have come to understand that every individual young or old has a great role to play and a responsibility to make their communities, countries and this world a better place,” says Vanessa.

Vanessa describes herself as very self-motivated. “I have been empowered by my cofounders James Nkakiruti and Benedict Baraka and have also received guidance from a number of mentors. I take on challenges, learn from them and come out more zealous. It feels funny being called a refugee in an African country where we should just be alike. We are all much similar to each other than we are different. It is time to shift our mindsets about how we look at the refugee status in the different nations – a shift from burdens to benefits,” says Vanessa.

Vanessa has always desired to do something to bring opportunities to young people living in refugee camps. Vanessa, together with her colleagues; Benedict Baraka and James Nkakiruti founded Youth Initiative for Development in Africa (YIDA) – an organization that focuses on engaging young refugee and non-refugee children and youths in education, entrepreneurship and leadership initiatives that can broaden their prospects for a better future. YIDA is Vanessa’s social responsibility project which is a form of give back to her community.\

In 2015, YIDA’s efforts led to its very first achievement where the team was able to strike a deal with United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to train teachers. The project kicked off by teaching a small group of children under a tree with Baraka as the only teacher at the time. The community recognized YIDA’s work as well as its social contribution, and excitedly allowed the organization to start teaching children in the Community Hall.

“What mostly keeps me going is the knowledge that there is always light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “I know greater things are ahead, and I would love to have good salary, a good education, and generally a good life. All these things are on the horizon for me to enjoy, only if I keep taking tiny little steps towards them. Leadership is about the ability to stand with others amidst several circumstance and give them strength to stand on their own,” she adds.

YIDA’s work and involvement in the community has been motivated and inspired by the help received from people who see value in what Vanessa and her team are doing to impact other people’s lives and transform the community. For instance, in 2016, YIDA received a donation from Reeta Roy, CEO of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars’ Program – an organization that provides access to Secondary and High education to Youths in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The Mastercard Program also integrates “Give Back” to communities through volunteerism and community service, just like the work YIDA is executing in Kyaka refugee camp, in Uganda.

Vanessa is very proud that YIDA has set up Kindergartens in the Kyaka II refugee settlement. In the last 4 years, YIDA has educated over 350 children between the ages of 3 and 6. It has connected five, energetic youths to secondary education and helped them obtain university scholarships. YIDA has also trained 30 young people in entrepreneurship. Vanessa’s socially responsible project has gained the attention of UNICEF, Mastercard Foundation and Global Grassroots Organizations that have helped the team build the organization and grow. Those who know Vanessa consider her not a refugee, but a heroine.

“Our offices are in Kyaka II Refugee Settlement. Currently, we employ 18 people, have 3 volunteers and 5 interns. We hope to grow our impact to at least 1,000 children in 5 years, have digital learning and advance to primary levels. Although we have encountered several challenges along the journey like lack of a shelter and shortage of funds, we have also pulled through as a team and continue to have a sustainable impact with the organization,” says Vanessa.

YIDA bridges a gap in education by providing free early childhood education through special learning centers and the schools. The organization has so far opened three learning centers while employing refugee youths as teachers, many of whom cannot access a quality education in the oversubscribed and under resourced refugee schools.

“As a God-fearing person, I believe, God has given us blessings, and although sometimes they are not on a silver platter, they are within our reach,” notes Vanessa. “We have got to reach out, and work towards achieving every goal. This motivates me to keep moving, to keep working and to better my community,” she says.

Over the next five years, Vanessa hopes that YIDA will be able to educate as many refugee and non-refugee children and expand into adult learning and university placements for older youths in the camp.

“Most of my achievements and contributions are within the organization-YIDA, but I have also been able to work with Global Grassroots; an organization that focuses on women empowerment. This opportunity has given me the chance to work with refugee champions. Through Global Grassroots, I volunteer with the United Nations. This year I was also selected as an Anzisha Fellow Finalist. Additionally, I have had the chance to travel to other African countries like Rwanda, and Kenya and I have been selected at the Entrepreneurship Challenge Finals,” Vanessa remarks.

According to Vanessa, Uganda is a very free country that allows refugees to do almost as much as any other citizen of Uganda. In the country, refugees are given land, the right to work and freedom to move around. She encourages all refugees in the country to be strong and struggle through, since there is hope for every one of them. As rich nations close the door on refugees, Uganda welcomes them with open arms.  

“As refugees, I recognize that we are disadvantaged but where other people make double efforts, we have the ability to make triple efforts. We have overcome a number of challenges like posttraumatic stress and we should stand up for those of us who haven’t yet overcome these challenges. It’s important for us to fight harder so that we can have and live positive lives that we all deserve. Fellow Africans lets support each other and initiate the change we need in education, employment and welfare. Change begins with us and we must wear our colors with pride,” she says

In the near future, Vanessa’s desire is to earn another scholarship so that she can go to university and pursue a degree in Development Studies. With this degree, Vanessa is hopeful that she can gain more knowledge and skills and even make a greater impact.

A story produced by Marion Apio during the Inter-University Media Challenge.

Makerere University


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