Feb. 9, 2024

Akon Juach’s remarkable journey and the Kakuma Empowerment Program

Former refugee overcomes adversity, finds unwavering support at UCalgary, and now creates opportunities for others
Akon Juach
Akon Juach Courtesy Akon Juach

Refugee youth empowerment takes centre stage as Akon Juach, communication and media undergraduate and former refugee turned advocate, shares her remarkable journey and the impactful initiatives she spearheads through the Kakuma Empowerment Program. From a challenging upbringing to creating opportunities for others, Juach's story embodies resilience, determination, and the transformative power of education.

Juach came to UCalgary in 2022 through the World University Services Canada Student Refugee Program and sponsored by the Students’ Union. Attending UCalgary as a refugee, Juach found unwavering support from mentors and peers. Despite challenges such as financial literacy and cultural adjustments, she thrived academically, attributing her success to the university community's inclusive environment.

“The support I’ve received from the university community has been multi-faceted,” says Juach, “encompassing academic guidance, mentorship, and financial assistance. It is through this collective encouragement that I have been able to thrive and make the most of my academic journey at the university.”

Juach, the eldest daughter in her family, hails from South Sudan but spent her formative years in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The camp hosts over 250,000 refugees and asylum seekers and contends with a range of challenges, including assaults targeting the refugee population, conflicts among various groups within the camp, incidents of theft and robbery, and attacks on girls in particular when they commute to and from school. 

Student-led initiative supports refugee students

In many developing nations, access to education is a significant challenge, often compounded by risks such as conflict or political oppression. Recognizing this, UCalgary students took action in 1986 to support refugee students in pursuing higher education and voted to establish a levy to annually sponsor a refugee student through the World University Service of Canada. Through this student-led initiative, funds are set aside annually to sponsor refugee students. Additionally, UCalgary contributes significantly by covering expenses such as admission fees, tuition, textbooks, and accommodation.

Despite facing separation from her father and enduring hardships, Juach's mother prioritized education, instilling a drive for academic excellence in her children. With the support of family and scholarships, Juach pursued higher education, driven by a desire to break the cycle of limited opportunities.

“The motivation to pursue higher education in the face of refugee challenges stems from a profound interplay of personal and familial factors,” says Juach. “Foremost among them is my mother’s lack of formal education, a circumstance driven by her selfless commitment to caring for her sister and youngest brother following their mother’s early passing when she was just eight. 

"Witnessing her sacrifices ignited a determination within me to break the cycle of limited educational opportunities. Being the eldest daughter, I assumed the role of a trailblazer for my siblings, recognizing the importance of setting an example for them. 

"I aimed to be a living testament to the transformative power of education, showcasing that despite our refugee background, academic excellence is achievable through perseverance and dedication.”

In 2021, Juach established the Kakuma Empowerment Program to support other refugees. Juach's vision for the Kakuma program stemmed from witnessing the struggles of refugee youth first hand. The ongoing arrival of new residents in the Kakuma refugee settlement creates congestion in various zones, which has negative implications for the provision of education, the availability of teachers, materials, and spaces, the distance to schools, and girls’ participation in school. 

Kakuma Empowerment Program empowers refugees

The program prioritizes tutoring services, offering targeted academic assistance and enrichment opportunities for refugee youth. Taking a holistic approach, it goes beyond traditional subjects, incorporating life skills and practical knowledge to foster students' overall growth and resilience. 

Additionally, the program provides sponsorship to alleviate financial burdens, offers youth mentorship tailored to individual needs, focusing on personal development, academic goals, and career aspirations. Notably, it also actively promotes girls' education, recognizing the importance of gender equality in educational access and opportunity.

“The vision is not only to empower current refugees but to contribute to a future where the refugee title becomes a thing of the past,” says Juach.

The program has been highly successful and is actively exploring plans to expand and replicate its successful model in other locations, including countries such as South Sudan and Congo. Recognizing the impact of its initiatives in refugee empowerment, the program aims to not only extend its reach to these countries where similar challenges and opportunities exist but also build schools and health amenities. 

In championing the Kakuma Empowerment Program, Juach not only transforms lives but also shapes a brighter future for refugee youth. With an unwavering commitment to education, mentorship, and community empowerment, the program serves as a beacon of hope and resilience in the face of adversity. As Juach continues to forge ahead, her dedication to empowering others underscores the profound impact that individuals can have in creating positive change, inspiring hope, and fostering inclusivity within our global community.

Read Juach’s full story

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