To celebrate the United Nation’s International Day of Education, Vodafone’s Shaween Jonroy shares her refugee experience and explains why she was keen to be part of Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network Schools Leadership lessons.
It all came to a head the day my mother was shot.
Thanks only to divine intervention, my brother - a toddler, sitting on her lap at the time, was unhurt. Had he not moved in the seconds before the bullet struck her leg, it would have hit him in the chest.
Our lives were now at risk on a daily basis.
I was born in beautiful Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. We lived there happily, surrounded by friends and family until the conflict deteriorated to the point we had to flee, leaving everything behind.
My father was a surgeon and had built a highly successful practice, my mother was a junior doctor.
Fortunately, we could afford to pay for fake identity papers, with the hope they would get us into Sweden. Unfortunately, they were spotted at the border and we ended up being stranded in Bulgaria instead.
Eventually we were granted a visa to legally enter the UK because my father had previously spent 10 years in England, training to become a doctor. I knew we were incredibly lucky to be safe, but it was still a difficult change.
We had gone from a four-storey house with a pool in a tight knit community to starting from scratch, feeling isolated in a totally different culture - with four of us living in a one-bedroom flat.
At school I didn't speak a word of English and wanted so desperately to fit in. I didn't look the same, dress the same, or eat the same food as anyone else. It made me want to hide who I really was – I didn’t want to bring my packed lunches to school or speak Kurdish in public.
Because of the language gap, my brother and I were also falling behind other students.
It was tough, but I knew it wasn't as bad as the history of hardships my family had faced.
My grandmother was assassinated - right in front of my grandfather and on one of my father’s first night shifts as a surgeon responding to war casualties, he had to conduct 52 amputations in a single night. Now he had to restart his career in the UK, my mother too, and had to retrain and requalify all over again.
Accepting myself and gaining confidence
Despite this adversity, they never gave up. They kept learning and working hard - which is an ethos they passed on to me.
Each night dad would make me read two extra pages of homework. It felt so unfair but, sure enough, it gradually took me from being behind my peers to getting ahead.
One day, before a school fancy dress party, my mum encouraged me to show off my traditional Kurdish clothes, rather than being a Disney Princess like some of the other girls.
I didn't want to. I didn't want to draw attention to myself.
But my mum persuaded me to try it and I ended up winning best costume.
This was a huge step in my life, because it showed me the power of accepting who you are, the confidence it gives you, and the respect that it earns from others.
Education as a tool for success
Education was always paramount. It's how my family became doctors in the first place.
I personally wanted to be a lawyer since a young age, perhaps from watching Ally McBeal. Like medicine though, law is an incredibly competitive field - my drive to learn that my parents gave to me, made all the difference.
I got into the third best school in the UK for sixth form, before going to university to study history, after which I earned my second degree in law.
Finally, this helped me achieve my dream of becoming a lawyer, and after working at small regional firms I moved in-house to work at Vodafone, in a role and company which I absolutely love. I'm so grateful to be with an organisation that cares about its staff and prioritises giving back to the world.
Speaking to other young refugees
Late last year, I was fortunate to be invited to speak to refugee and host community students at Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya as part of Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network Schools Leadership Lessons - a series of interactive sessions where leaders are invited to share their story and advice to Instant Network Schools students.
It was great to engage with these young students, share my story of displacement and answer their questions. My key messages to them were about the importance of education to shape their futures and to encourage them to make the most of every opportunity available.
Sadly, nearly half of all refugee children are out of school. Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, set up the Instant Network Schools (INS) programme, to give young refugees, host communities and their teachers access to digital learning, improving the quality of education in some of the most marginalised communities in Africa.
To date, there are now 84 INS operating across 6 countries: Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mozambique, South Sudan, and Tanzania.
Since the programme’s inception, 247,065 children and 4,418 teachers have benefitted, and INS is on track to meet its target of reaching 500,000 students and 10,000 teachers in up to 300 schools by the end of 2025.
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