Sylvain Ruhamya Canga gives the commencement speech at the JC:HEM graduation in September 2014 before he moved to Israel to attain a Masters in Community Development from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Angela Wells / Jesuit Refugee Service)
(Kakuma) March 17, 2015 – "No tragedy can kill hope. They have taken our homes, but not our future. No matter how bad their past has been, everyone has the right to a future!" said Sylvain Ruhamya Canga in his valedictorian speech at the commencement ceremony of the online higher education program implemented by Jesuit Refugee Service.
Sylvain entered the program three years ago with a wealth of knowledge and experience. He had been a successful lawyer and human rights activist in his home region of South Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Subjected to persecution for his work, his life had been violently interrupted.
After three years of hard work, Sylvain had graduated from the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) program offering online higher education opportunities to refugees in Kakuma camp, northwestern Kenya. JC:HEM students, studying for a diploma in business or education, receive online instruction from Jesuit universities and on-site tutoring from JRS staff in Kakuma camp
"In Congo, I used to advocate for prisoners who were often arrested illegally or arbitrarily. Many were just assumed to be guilty, but never given fair trials. I was fighting for their rights, because I believe everyone has rights, even if they are criminals," said the 33-year old.
In 2005, Sylvain fled to Kenya to save his life, but found little opportunity to continue his career.
"In Congo I completed my degree in Civil Law, but in Kenya I realized I couldn't use my knowledge and skills, because refugees have limited access to employment here, especially as a lawyer in court."
Bureaucratic restrictions placed on refugees by the Kenyan government make it nearly impossible for refugees to live outside the camp, let alone begin a sustainable career path, even when they are highly qualified.
Remote place of relief. "The journey to Kakuma took me the furthest I've ever been in my life. When I decided to flee, Jesuits helped me get to Uganda and then to Nairobi where UNHCR [UN refugee agency] officers suggested I go to Kakuma camp. That's how I got here."
Going from the fast-paced life of a social activist to the monotony of a refugee camp was no easy task, but Sylvain made the best of his trying situation.
"[Kakuma] is such a remote place, but I'm getting used to it. Over time, I've started to appreciate the experience of unity in diversity. Many people talk about diversity, but have they ever really touched it? Here, I live it every day."
Activism. Despite the obstacles, Sylvain has found ways to continue defending human rights, volunteering with various NGOs in his community.
While working with FilmAid International, he coordinated community participation in the production of films, such as the 2012 film, Accountability, to promote conflict resolution techniques between refugees. While teaching at Don Bosco primary school for four years, he taught English to students to help them improve their chances of doing vocational training courses or going on to further education in the camp.
"Most of these students are now self-reliant; some have even become primary school teachers, others continued studying. I feel proud when my former students, now good friends, tell me they found hope after meeting me. That is the greatest souvenir from my passage in the camp."
Sylvain also served as the student leader in the JC:HEM program, organizing student meetings, social events and graduation ceremonies, as well as overseeing the student committee in charge of the upkeep of the Arrupe Centre where classes took place.
Better future awaits. Since his graduation, Sylvain has moved to Israel where he has been pursuing a Masters in Community Development at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
"Being in the camp became a turning point for me. Just like St Ignatius, when he got sick, he knew that something bigger was waiting for him, and now I've realised that something bigger is awaiting me.
I believe one day I'll be a policy maker, because I know how policies can obstruct people's lives. Once others have knowledge, they'll have the power to claim their rights."
Sylvain hopes to return to Africa, perhaps to his home in Congo or to Kakuma refugee camp, and continue to be an agent of change for those on the margins. One day, he plans to give back by becoming a professor for the JC:HEM program.
"Most of the people who volunteered to teach us for free are senior professors with years of experience. They are valuable, but they won't live forever, and we don't know if more people with this same spirit will come forward. In order to make sure JC:HEM continues the alumni, like me, must strive to become leaders and professors of the program."
I used to regret everything that was taken from me in my home, but there is something that no one can take from me: my knowledge and my spirit."
by Angela Wells
JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer