Educating Refugee Children: The Inspiring Work of Joseph Munyambanza, a member of the Global Education First Youth Advocacy Group

© COBURWAS/ Muhwezi Daniel

By Joseph Munyambaza

14 February 2013 – In September 2012, when UN Secretary–General BAN Ki-Moon launched the five year Global Education First Initiative, international partners formed a Youth Advocacy Group comprised of 16 young leaders and activists from around the world, in order to strengthen momentum and increase support for the initiative.

I am one of the members of the Youth Advocacy Group, Joseph Munyambanza, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I have a remarkable story of perseverance and leadership – like many other members of the group.

I was six years old when my family was living in the DRC and war broke out. After trying to seek safety in the various camps in Goma, we had no choice but to flee to Uganda. In 1996, my parents, my seven siblings and I settled in Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Uganda.

By the time we joined the camp, it had 23,000 people.

Life in Kyangwali camp was difficult. In the camp, there was lack of food, diseases like malaria were very common, child abuse was a common happening and above all there was lack of education. 

There were only two primary schools and one secondary school to serve the whole population.

The challenge in these schools was that the teachers were not qualified. Most of them were student teachers from DR Congo. Because of the poor living situation, most of my elder brothers went back to Congo, many of my female classmates were married off, and my sister died in the hospital when she failed to get treatment due to the cost.

I was frustrated by the situation, but also determined. I was filled with a lot of anger by the fact that I could not go back to my country and that our family had to live in a camp. However, I was able to let out my anger in a good way. I felt the only way I could avert my situation and that of my family was through education. My parents had not gone to school, and without my elder siblings, I had no one to advise me on my studies. I was left with only my instincts to follow. In 1998, at seven years old, I enrolled in second grade at Kinakyeitake Primary School, two kilometers from my home.

I had studied Primary One in Congo, so at Kinakyeitake Primary School, I went straight to Primary Two. However, teachers in that school were not serious. They were not used to teaching. When I realized that my efforts were not yielding anything, I decided to join another school, Kasonga Primary School which was about four kilometers away from home. I chose this school because it was competitive and although my parents could not help me with schoolwork, they were supportive.

My parents would work in people’s shambas (gardens) to provide me with books and pencils. Because my school was far away from home, I would wake up at five in the morning and start the hour and a half trek to school. Despite the long journey each day, I committed myself to my studies and got some of the highest grades in the country.

By then, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was offering scholarships to pupils who had passed in first grade and being among those, I got a scholarship. So I joined Duhaga Senior Secondary School in 2004. That year, five students from the camp were able to get scholarships. In secondary school, I continued performing well, but noticed that most of the students in the refugee camp were performing poorly in their school work.

With five fellow students I formed Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan (COBURWAS) International Youth Organisation with the aim of improving access to education and the quality of education available. At only 14 years old, I was elected the Education Director of the organization and was committed to ensuring that all students in the camp performed well. While in Senior Two, I started tutoring interested primary school pupils.

The pupils used to come in shifts to one of the available classrooms the primary school headmaster allowed me to use in the refugee camp. At first, I had a group of 12 pupils and as their performance improved, parents started trusting my intentions. They started sending more children. At one point, I had 52 pupils. They were a big number for me so I called for help from other members of the association.

Another colleague and I tutored during the holidays for free while COBURWAS members worked to raise money for school supplies.

In order to raise money for materials such as chalk, pens, pencils, books and text books, I and other members of the group, who had by now increased to 150, would dig people’s shambas. From the payment we would get, we bought exercise books, text books, pens and pencils for our students.

As a result of COBURWAS’s efforts the grades of the children living in the camp improved. However, our major challenge was that the girls were not benefiting as much as the boys. They were dropping out of school because of the long distance and lack of scholastic materials.

To address the challenge of girls’ low attendance, we encouraged 52 girls to remain in school and supported them through tutoring. All of the girls passed their 2007 Primary Leaving Exams. Despite successfully passing, the camp had only one secondary school of very poor quality.  In turn, members of COBURWAS and I rented of a hostel in Hoima Town, 80 kilometers from the refugee camp, to provide housing for some of the students so that they could attend a better secondary school.

After working for three weeks in people’s shambas, we raised Shs300,000 (about US$150) and rented the hostel. We brought 33 students into this hostel and enrolled them in different secondary schools. By 2011, we had 31 students sitting for Senior Four and Senior Six exams.

COBURWAS is preparing for a new school year and we are now supporting 300 students’ education. In addition to supporting students’ housing so they can attend secondary school and tutoring and COBURWAS Primary School, COBURWAS has also established an anti-violence young women’s empowerment initiative, an agricultural/collective farming initiative which leverages micro-finance, and a small business development and vocational training programming for widows and girls who never got the opportunity to go to school.

If you would like more information on how you can support COBURWAS’ work, please visit:

Joseph’s story is just one of the remarkable examples of the journeys taken by members of the Youth Advocacy Group and the work they will be doing to make access to quality education a reality for all children around the globe.
The Youth Advocacy Group represents youth globally, moving forward the three priority areas of Global Education First – getting all children into school, improving the quality of education and fostering global citizenship – amongst their networks and partners by:
1. facilitating consultations with other youth in their countries, regions and globally;
2. providing strategic advice to the youth representative on the Global Education First High-Level Steering Committee regarding the priorities of young people in relation to education
3. promoting the priorities and voices of young people in the advocacy messages and activities of Global Education First; and
4. mobilizing young people and governments to make pledges in support of education and hold them accountable for their commitments.

The members of the Youth Advocacy Group bring together an outstanding array of experience and expertise in youth education issues that range from student affairs and student movements to sexual and reproductive health education, education for sustainable development, and access to quality education for indigenous populations, refugees and urban slum children.