The combination of food and education can change lives - if, like Abass Mohamed you make the most of your opportunities. WFP intern Jennifer Mizgata tells us how Abass swapped a Kenyan refugee camp for one of the world's most exclusive universities - Princeton.
Abass Mohamed’s favourite subject at school was biology. The reason? “It’s about life,” he said.
Nowadays, you wouldn’t think that he’d have much more to
Imagine what the world could be like if we could give every child this chance
James Morris, WFP Executive Director
learn about life considering how far he’s come: from a Kenyan refugee camp to the ivy-draped halls of Princeton University.
Abass’ odyssey began 15 years ago at aged 10, when he and his family were forced to flee for their lives from Somalia – which was convulsed by chaos, violence and famine after the fall of the Siad Barre regime.
The family made their way to Dadaab refugee camp after a harrowing trek, arriving at a desperate time when people were dying in the hundreds each day from starvation.
Set in the sere scrubland of eastern Kenya - where food is nearly impossible to grow and job opportunities are as scarce as rainwater – the refugees, who now number some 170,000, are utterly reliant on outside assistance.
WFP, along with sister UN agencies and other NGOs like CARE, provide critical food aid that enables these refugees to survive.
Life in a camp
"Refugees are a different category of people," says the soft-spoken Abass, now 25. "They are in a difficult situation which is beyond their control. Their lives revolve around the fact that they get food rations every 15 days. They are dependent on this help.”
Though the Mohamed family initially viewed the camp as a temporary solution to escape Somalia’s widespread violence, they have lived in the camp ever since – a dozen family members crammed into two small rooms.
Despite numerous obstacles – such as the lack of electricity that made studying tough - Abass took full advantage of the limited opportunities at the camp.
He managed to finish among the top students in the region in both primary and later secondary school, where places were limited and coveted.
He excelled in debate clubs and writing competitions in English. When he finished his schooling, he began teaching in the refugee camp, inspiring other young people.
Kids are the future
His diligence and intelligence caught the attention of aid workers, who in turn helped propel him along the path that landed him the unique opportunity to attend one of America’s top schools, Princeton University - where he has received a full scholarship.
Abass’ experience as a refugee and now, Princeton student, has given him a unique perspective on the importance of education – and the food aid that enables it - in the lives of refugees and displaced persons.
“It is these kids who manage to get educated in the camps who are the hope of the future for Somalia,” he says.
Abass and WFP
“The irony is that the educational system in the camps, limited as it is, is far better than what is possible inside Somalia right now.”
Abass is now in his second year at Princeton. Staff for US Senator Herb Kohl, who had heard all about the Somali Princetonian during a trip to Kenya and Uganda to visit WFP
Eventually I'll be back home in Somalia helping in reconstructing that country
sites, decided to invite Abass to speak when they convened a recent hearing on food aid before the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee.
WFP Executive Director James Morris, who led off testimony at the hearing in March 2007, said Abass was a vivid example of how proper food and nutrition could enable all children reach their potential.
Changing lives through food
School feeding, for example, has been demonstrated to significantly boost not only enrollment, but attendance and academic performance.
“This is eloquent testimony to the fact that a well-timed intervention of food aid can not only rescue a life, but propel it in a positive new direction,” Morris said.
“Imagine what the world could be like if we could give every child this chance,” he said.
As a teacher, Abass saw firsthand the impact that food could have on the students he was teaching, describing it as “a way to encourage kids to come to school”. His youngest sister, in primary school at Daadab, still benefits from food-for-education programmes.
Young people under 17 comprise more than half the camp population.
“These young people have so much talent,” Abass says. “But most of their talent is getting wasted for lack of opportunity. If someone can help them, they will be able to help themselves and their communities, as well as their countries."
Abass’ remarkable journey is far from over. He sees his own education as a way to further the development of the Somali population.
What the future holds
Struck by the fact that there was only one doctor serving the entire Daadab population, he is considering becoming a doctor.
Or, perhaps, an aid worker, as he says his own success story wouldn’t have been possible without humanitarian assistance.
"Eventually I'll be back home in Somalia helping in reconstructing that country," he said.