Empowering refugee youth: Akon Juach's journey and the Kakuma Empowerment Program

From refugee camps to university: Overcoming adversity and creating opportunities

Akon Juach

Refugee youth empowerment takes center stage as Akon Juach, Communication and Media undergraduate and former refugee turned advocate, shares her remarkable journey and the impactful initiatives she spearheads through the Kakuma Empowerment Program. From a challenging upbringing to creating opportunities for others, Juach's story embodies resilience, determination, and the transformative power of education.

Background and personal journey

My name is Akon Juach, the eldest daughter among my siblings, including Jooh Juach, Nyandeng Juach, Bol Juach, and Achuei Juach. I come from a family where my parents, Yar Thon and Juach Arok, faced the challenges of separation, with my mother and siblings residing in Kenya while my father remained in South Sudan. Our journey began when my mother sought refuge in a camp in 2002 while carrying my younger sister, Jooh. At the age of 4, I started attending Fuji, an elementary school, where the simple reward of receiving biscuits at the end of each session became a source of motivation. Despite facing challenges, such as my older siblings sometimes intercepting the biscuits at the gate, I cherished my education. With the support of my aunt and my mother's embroidery skills, we eventually relocated to Eldoret, a town near the camp, marking the beginning of my formal education. Life's hardships compelled me to teach myself the art of embroidering bedsheets, a skill my mother utilized to sustain us. She sent the embroidered items to my aunt in Australia, who sold them to cover our fees, food and rent. Despite the tough circumstances, I embraced simplicity and humility. Although societal expectations doubted our success, especially being girls, my mother was determined to ensure our academic excellence. Her commitment to our education, influenced by her lack of formal schooling due to family responsibilities, paid off as my siblings and I excelled in school, opening doors to scholarships that eased our journey.

The motivation to pursue higher education in the face of refugee challenges stems from a profound interplay of personal and familial factors. Foremost among them is my mother’s lack of formal education, a circumstance driven by her selfless commitment to caring for her sister and youngest brother following their mother’s early passing when she was just 8. Witnessing her sacrifices ignited a determination within me to break the cycle of limited educational opportunities. 

Being the eldest daughter, I assumed the role of a trailblazer for my siblings, recognizing the importance of setting an example for them. I aimed to be a living testament to the transformative power of education, showcasing that despite our refugee background, academic excellence is achievable through perseverance and dedication.

Furthermore, my pursuit of higher education is a heartfelt effort to express gratitude to all those who played a part in shaping my journey positively. From my aunt in Australia, who sold the embroidered bedsheets to support our education, to the teachers, my grandmother Achueidit who used to pray for me, and my maternal uncles, and mentors who guided me, I am motivated by a profound appreciation for the collective effort that contributed to my growth.

Finally, the aspiration to paint a picture of resilience and success in the world propels me forward. Armed with communication skills honed through life experiences and education, I aim to be an ambassador of hope and aspiration. By showcasing the potential that emerges from adversity, I believe my journey can contribute to a broader narrative of triumph over challenges, not only for myself but for others facing similar circumstances.

Akon Juach, Communication and Media undergraduate

Akon Juach, Communication and Media undergraduate

University experience

My experience as a refugee attending UCalgary has been remarkably positive, characterized by a smooth and supportive journey. The unwavering assistance from individuals from the University of Calgary’s Students’ Union, like Michael Hedgecock, Shaziah Morsette, and Sabika Azhar has played a pivotal role in shaping my time at the university. Their guidance and support have created a conducive environment, making it easier for me to seamlessly integrate into the academic community. 

The presence of these advocates has not only facilitated a smooth transition into university life but has also fostered a sense of belonging. Their support has been instrumental in alleviating the challenges often faced by refugees, allowing me to focus on my education and fully engage in the university experience.

Overall, attending UCalgary as a refugee has been a positive and enriching journey, thanks to the invaluable assistance and encouragement from individuals who have played a crucial role in making my education pursuits a reality. Their commitment to fostering an inclusive and supportive environment has significantly contributed to my overall positive experience at the university. 

While my journey at UCalgary has generally been smooth, I did encounter specific challenges that added layers to my experience. One notable obstacle was financial illiteracy, particularly concerning sending money back home to support my family and friends. Navigating the complexities of financial transactions and understanding the most effective means of assisting posed a unique set of challenges that required a learning curve. 

Additionally, cultural differences presented themselves in terms of food, lifestyle, and adjusting to the weather. The cultural nuances, especially related to dietary habits, required adaptation, and acclimating to a new way of life in a different climate presented its own set of adjustments. 

Despite these challenges, the overall experience has been one of growth and learning. Overcoming financial hurdles has equipped me with valuable skills, and adapting to cultural differences has broadened my perspective. These challenges, with significance, have become integral parts of my journey, contributing to my personal development and resilience during my time at UCalgary.

The support I’ve received from the university community throughout my academic journey has been instrumental in my success. My local committee, professors like Victoria Guglietti, and my classmates have extended a helping hand in various aspects, ranging from academic guidance to financial support. 

Professors like Victoria Guglietti have a pivotal role by providing valuable guidance, mentorship, and a nurturing learning environment. Her commitment to fostering academic growth even through my research projects significantly contributed to my understanding of the subjects and has inspired confidence in my academic pursuits.

Moreover, my classmates have been a source of collaboration and support. The sense of camaraderie within the university community has created an environment where we help each other navigate challenges, share insights, and collectively strive for academic excellence.

Financial support from the local committee and others within the university community has been crucial in alleviating some of the economic burdens associated with pursuing higher education. Their assistance has not only eased financial stress but has also allowed me to focus more on my studies and fully engage in the academic experience.

In essence, the support I’ve received from the university community has been multi-faceted, encompassing academic guidance, mentorship, and financial assistance. It is through this collective encouragement that I have been able to thrive and make the most of my academic journey at the university.

Inspiration for the Kakuma Empowerment Program

I initiated this organization after witnessing a distressing incident. The catalyst for this endeavor was the sight of a young boy being caned by a teacher for lacking an exercise book. Intrigued, I spoke with him and learned that he was an orphan, the sole individual in the camp without parents or guardians. Despite receiving financial support from BambaChakula, a UN program providing funds for refugees to purchase essential items other than food, he prioritized buying sufficient food over school stationery. This stark reality highlighted the misconception that all youth can afford necessary school supplies.

The creation of the program also stemmed from a vision I had in grade 10 to establish a charity organization. The Kakuma Empowerment Program became the realization of that vision, driven by a deep-seated commitment to addressing the educational challenges faced by refugee youth.

A crucial factor in pursuing this initiative was the confidence in my strong support system, including friends and family, who believed in the vision and were instrumental in bringing it to fruition. Recognizing that my achievements were made possible through assistance from various sources, including those unrelated by blood, fueled my desire to give back to society. The program serves as a manifestation of gratitude and a commitment to providing opportunities for others facing similar challenges in their pursuit of education and empowerment.

I believe this organization’s programs will make a difference for other refugee students, the programs are already creating an impact in their lives, not only through education but even through their personal growth and awareness.

The Kakuma Empowerment Program

The Kakuma Empowerment Program services include tutoring, sponsorship, youth mentorship, and promotion of girls’ education.

The program prioritizes tutoring services, offering targeted academic assistance and enrichment opportunities for refugee youth. Taking a holistic approach, it goes beyond traditional subjects, incorporating life skills and practical knowledge to foster students' overall growth and resilience. Additionally, the program provides sponsorship to alleviate financial burdens, offers youth mentorship tailored to individual needs, focusing on personal development, academic goals, and career aspirations. Notably, it also actively promotes girls' education, recognizing the importance of gender equality in educational access and opportunity.

The program is committed to continual evaluation and adaptation of its programs. This approach ensures alignment with the best practices, allowing the organization to evolve dynamically, meet changing needs, and maintain a high standard of effectiveness in promoting refugee youth empowerment through high school scholarships, mentorship, and remedial classes.

The program is actively exploring plans to expand and replicate its successful model in other locations, including countries such as South Sudan and Congo. Recognizing the impact of its initiatives in refugee empowerment, the program aims to not only extend its reach to these countries where similar challenges and opportunities exist but also build schools and health amenities.

Additionally, the program acknowledges the presence of members in various universities across Canada and the US, such as the University of Toronto, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, including the University of Calgary, signifying a potential for broader collaboration and the establishment of satellite programs to amplify its impact. The vision is not only to empower current refugees but to contribute to a future where the refugee title becomes a thing of the past.

The Kakuma Empowerment Program envisions making a significant and lasting impact on the broader refugee community over time through its holistic approach to refugee youth empowerment. The local community has responded positively to the Kakuma Empowerment Program, as evidenced by their active support and involvement in various aspects of the initiative. 

As of 2023, Kakuma refugee camp hosts over 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Some of the challenges facing the education system in Kakuma include attacks on the refugee population, clashes between different groups of people residing in the camp, robbery, theft, and attacks on girls in particular when they commute to and from school. The ongoing arrival of new residents creates congestion in various zones, which has negative implications for the provision of education, the availability of teachers, materials, and spaces, the distance to schools, and girls’ participation in school. The Kakuma refugee settlement continues to grow, and it now consists of five camps. Education facilities are not available in all locations, which forces students to travel quite a distance to get to school. Frequent insecurity in and around the camps as well as camp curfews limit the hours students can study and attend extra courses, such as computer courses or other upgrading classes. - World University Service of Canada Student Refugee Program

In many developing nations, access to education is a significant challenge, often compounded by risks such as conflict or political oppression. Recognizing this, UCalgary students took action in 1986 to support refugee students in pursuing higher education and voted to establish a levy to annually sponsor a refugee student through the World University Service of Canada. Through this student-led initiative, funds are set aside annually to sponsor refugee students. Additionally, UCalgary contributes significantly by covering expenses such as admission fees, tuition, textbooks, and accommodation. - Students' Union Refugee Student Program

Learn more about the Kakuma Empowerment Program