The project evolved from a desire to focus our corporate philanthropic efforts on a cause that transcends local concerns and helps some of the most disadvantaged people on earth. Through our financial gifts, we wanted to make a real, measurable impact to improve the lives of people who have fled impossible situations.
The Kakuma camp is home to more than 80,000 people. Most are Sudanese who fled the civil war in their country, but Kakuma continues to see a steady influx of refugees from other countries such as Somalia.
Two years ago, four company employees and I visited the camp. The purpose was to see the site for our initial project, the Community Technology Access Centre, which opened in January of this year. Many refugees who live in the camp are now employed there as managers, technicians and teachers. This facility uses solar power to provide computer solutions and Internet access for schoolchildren, youth and adults. It is a project that demonstrates tangible benefits.
On our trip, we saw the conditions in the camp and gained insight into the complex operation of providing food, shelter and health care for so many. We also learned about concerns regarding safety and the lack of opportunity for education, especially for girls.
We visited the Angelina Jolie Primary School for Girls and saw the need for a secondary school; after graduating from primary school, these girls required protection. A boarding school for girls in Grades 7 to 12 would protect them from many risks in the camp, including rape, prostitution and the contraction of HIV.
Today almost 27,000 school-age children live in Kakuma but the camp has only one secondary school, with a pupil-teacher ratio as high as 134:1. Young women and girls represent only 10 per cent of those enrolled in the school and many girls who don’t receive secondary education are married by the age of 12 and are mothers by 13.
By the end of 2011, our employees had raised more than $575,000 for Kakuma through payroll deductions and fundraising events across the country. Examples include a Snug Shirt day in Calgary, a gala in Toronto, a marathon run for employees from many offices and an annual golf tournament.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of presenting a cheque for more than $250,000 to UNHCR that would go toward 50 per cent of the construction costs for a high school. That was part of a total contribution of $720,000 that also includes the school’s operating costs for the first two years.
I am happy to say groundbreaking for that school will take place very soon and the school will begin operating next year, initially serving 170 girls before reaching its capacity of 250 girls in 2014.
Personal side to story for pension analyst
Kakuma is particularly special to one Morneau Shepell employee, Panther Kuol. A pension analyst in our Toronto office, he is a native of Sudan. He was separated from his parents at the age of six and taken to the desert when countless villages in southern Sudan, which is predominantly Christian, were attacked by the militia.
Kuol is one of the 26,000 Lost Boys of Sudan who survived. He had to walk 1,300 kilometres to Ethiopia and back across Sudan before arriving at Kakuma. Along the way, some people perished in crocodile-infested waters, were taken by lions or shot by soldiers.
Kuol arrived at Kakuma when he was 10 and resumed his education. Prior to that, in Ethiopia, his schooling had been restricted to writing in the dirt under trees. But at Kakuma he had instructors, workbooks and pencils. He spent 13 years in the camp and with the help of aid groups, attended primary school and high school.
He then won a scholarship, was sponsored by the World University Service of Canada student refugee program and studied business administration at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. Finally, he found his way to the Morneau Shepell office in Vancouver, before transferring to the Toronto office.
Kuol is now a Canadian citizen and to say he was an unlikely candidate for the life he leads now is an understatement.
Last December, he returned to Kenya and saw his mother and even his father whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years. None of this would have been possible if not for Kakuma. Says Kuol: “I am eternally grateful to Canada for allowing me to become a citizen of this wonderful country and to Morneau Shepell and its employees who saw a need and did something about it.”