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At 55 years of age, Geoffrey Wafula Masika was the oldest graduate of the third JC:HEM cohort. He is one of three of the 18 graduates from the local Turkana community who host the refugees. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Kakuma) October 7, 2015 – Six years ago Tshils Ntumba* was consumed in college life – studying day in and day out to achieve his dream of becoming an engineer in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. 

These dreams were put on hold after his family was targeted for his father's work as a journalist. He lost every member of his family. 

With help from bishops in Congo, he managed to save his own life and start over in Kakuma refugee camp, northeastern Kenya. 

"I had no choice but to come to Kakuma, but when I arrived I thought I would not stay even one more day," said Tshils. "Eventually I picked myself up and started to work as an electrician, French teacher and in the logistics department of a humanitarian agency. Then I was accepted into JC:HEM, the only opportunity for higher education in the camp," he said. 

Tshils was one of the 18 students who graduated from Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins in late September. The programme offers university-level online courses to young adults in the camp. 

Professors from Jesuit universities across the United States, such as Gonzaga University, Georgetown University, Creighton University and Boston College, provide their courses online to make the initiative possible. 

Through JC:HEM, refugees and host community members acquire diplomas in Liberal Studies from Regis University, with concentrations in either business or education, after studying online for three years.   

Overcoming the past. Students of JC:HEM, a project of the Jesuit Refugee Service, are challenging the notion that the suffering of the past defines their futures. 

"When we joined the program we were already killed emotionally… and traumatized by wars, corruption, tribal conflicts and religious differences deep into the core of our souls," said South Sudanese Reth Maker Reth in his valedictorian speech. 

"But when I received my admission letter, I knew God had given me a chance to smile again after over two decades of hopelessness…to change my life for better and that of the community around me." The majority of former alumni and this year's graduates have gone on to become leaders and agents of change in the camp and beyond. 

Some are furthering their education in Israel, South Korea and the United States, while others have become employed as teachers – starting community-based-organizations in Kakuma offering vocational training, English lessons and other services – or opening businesses that create jobs in the camp. 

Tshils, for example, leads an organization entitled "Hope Vision" which hosts debates about social issues in the community and provides start-up loans to new businesses in Kakuma, like Hope Restaurant which serves Congolese dishes. 

It's our time. In the long-term future, most graduates hope to use their leadership skills to overcome root causes of displacement. Since opening in 1992, the population of Kakuma refugee camp has multiplied by 15. Originally the camp hosted some 12,000 "Lost Boys of Sudan," but today the camp's 185,000 refugees hail from 18 different countries as conflicts wage on across the continent. 

"We've become determined to overcome the failures of leadership which have torn our countries into pieces under the servitude of violence, discrimination and inequality. It's now our time to eradicate of the cycle of conflict in our countries," said Tshils. 

In his valedictorian speech, Reth Maker Reth extended his gratitude to the generous donors who have contributed to forming leaders needed now more than ever in eastern Africa. 

"I believe that they have planted their seeds in the best soil," he said, before encouraging his fellow graduates to continue on the path of Saint Ignatius of Loyola who "worked tirelessly with a blazing love for mankind." 

In addition, JRS Eastern Africa Director Endashaw Debrework S.J. recommitted the organization to this mission by announcing plans to expand JC:HEM into Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. 

"We'll continue to fuel education that creates agents of change in the complex refugee response," he said. 

*Names have been changed for reasons of security.

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