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CIYOTA: Uniting Youth & Solving Shared Problems

I am Joseph Munyambanza, a-23-year old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the age of 6, my village was attacked and I fled to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda. There, I lived among thousands of refugees. Driven there by different conflicts in different countries, we all ran from violence and its many problems. Even after arriving at the refugee settlement, a presumed place of safety, we faced poverty, violence, and disease. Many children lacked parents or guardians. Most children lacked quality education: in a camp of 23,000 people, 50% of whom were of school age, there was only one high school. It was overcrowded, understaffed, and terminated in grade 10. And across the refugee settlement, we all lacked responsible leaders to cultivate hope for the future.

So at the age of 14, I and three friends founded “CIYOTA,” the COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa. “COBURWAS” mixes the names of the countries we come from: Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan. Together as CIYOTA, our goal is to unite refugee youth from different countries to solve shared problems.

Before CIYOTA, I did not know even one refugee girl who had successfully graduated from secondary school. One problem is distance—the nearest school that provides 11th and 12th grade is 80 km away. So CIYOTA has started student hostels in Hoima town to help youth finish their education. National examinations are another challenge for both girls and boys with education in refugee camp schools. So we created a tutoring program to support and inspire students as they approach these examinations.

It has worked. In the end of 2010, CIYOTA had 15 A-level graduates, including five girls—the first girls in the community ever to pass secondary school. Today, hundreds of refugee girls and boys have completed high school. Ten refugee youth who graduated from the CIYOTA programs years have earned admission and scholarships at top global universities. We have students at Makerere University in Uganda, United States International University in Kenya, Rochester University in the USA and others. And five of these 10 students are girls!

In 2009, we built a new primary school to provide better education to vulnerable children. More than 350 vulnerable children attend CIYOTA Primary School. They have two meals a day, parental care, and psychosocial support. In partnership with the local community and Theater Versus Oppression from the UK, we have built three classrooms and increased the number of teachers.

Our farming projects provide food to feed the most vulnerable students as they attend school. We began this after working in nearby farms to raise money for exercise books, pens, and supporting materials the most vulnerable students. Today, our farming program has harvested more than 3 tons of rice, and we have more than 150 goats in our small farm.

We also work on issues outside of traditional classrooms. An anti-violence girls' movement provides leadership training and self-sustainability initiatives run by young women who never went to school. Through a program, Skills for Life, about 45 young girls attend tailoring training. They are involved in the community and have participated in community sensitization to empower women and show the community the importance of girl children.

To see the effects of these programs, you can just meet Mahoro Tisiya or Furaha Antoinette. As girls, both stayed in the youth hostels. Both attended the national exam tutoring program. Both graduated high school.

After graduating, Mahoro Tisiya received a scholarship of $60,000 to study at the African Leadership Academy, the best school on the continent, which prepares leaders for Africa. Tisiya started a program to inspire children to read, and she enables these children to discover their talents regardless their circumstances.

Furaha Antoinette, a single mother, now runs a microfinance institution for more than 60 women. Each of the students in our program gets entrepreneurial mentorship along with their education. She won the Anzisha prize, given to the top three Young Innovative Africans.

In all that CIYOTA does, we want to use education to protect and improve the lives of the most vulnerable members in our midst, particularly girls and orphans. Though our work is less than a drop in the ocean in relation to the challenges facing children, programs like CIYOTA can be a source and model of educational excellence—not just for conflict-affected refugees but also for local Ugandans. I think of them as pilots, not as finished products. We value education as a pathway out of poverty, as well as a means to heal conflict, create social cohesion, and spur economic growth. Education for youth through methods that also build corresponding commitment and support of families and the community is therefore the focus of CIYOTA's work.

We believe that by working hand-in-hand with youth and their communities, we can create an environment where refugee children have hopes and believe in their dreams like any other children.