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Jesuit Entity in Malawi Highlights Success Story of Scholarship Program for Refugee Girls

21-year-old Divine Yusuf, a second-year nursing student at Mzuzu University in Malawi and a Naweza scholarship recipient.

On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science marked Thursday, February 11, the leadership of the international refugee entity of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Malawi, has highlighted a success story of the scholarship program that supports female refugees in the Southeastern African nation. 

In the Thursday, February 11 report, the story of 21-year-old Divine Yusuf, a Malawian refugee student pursuing a Degree in Nursing and Midwifery at the country’s Mzuzu University thanks to JRS Naweza Scholarship is shared. 

Naweza is a Swahili word that means, “I can.” The Naweza Scholarship is a JRS initiative being realized in partnership with the Fidel Götz Foundation.

The scholarship initiative “aims to equip refugee girls with the capacity to increase their access and improve the quality of their education, security, and overall well-being,” JRS leadership says in the report obtained by ACI Africa. 

Born as the second child in a family of six, Divine grew up in Malawi’s largest refugee settlement, Dzaleka camp located in the Dowa District within the Catholic Archdiocese of Lilongwe. 

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“Growing up with the complexities of living in a refugee camp was compounded by a strict stepfather who did not see the value of providing an education for a girl,” JRS officials say in the report.

They add referencing Divine, “Her father died before she was born, and her mother’s new husband insisted that Divine perform housework rather than go to school.” 

Her stepfather’s resistance notwithstanding, Divine’s mother encouraged her to pursue education, and supported her in moving to her uncle’s house, an environment that was more conducive for learning. 

From her uncle’s house, Divine was able to enroll in primary school where she excelled and was selected to join St. Bakhita Secondary School. 

“My uncle was so impressed by how well I did that he agreed to pay for my form-one school fees,” Divine has been quoted as saying in the report by officials of the 40-year-old Catholic agency. 

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According to JRS leadership, Divine “thrived and life became much easier once she was free from her oppressive stepfather. But during her third term, her uncle was killed in a car accident.” 

Her uncle’s death saw Divine head back to her parent’s home in Dzaleka camp “with no prospects of continuing her education.” As her friends prepared to sit for their Junior Certificate Examination, she considered giving up on the idea of completing school but her mother would hear none of it. 

Making reference to her mother, the 21-year-old nursing student says, “She asked some friends for help and I ended up writing my examinations. In my first term of form three, I had a close friend at school and her parents managed to pay my school fees.” 

She continues, “During the second term, the school also contributed to my fees until I finished my Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) with help from different people who were not even members of my family.” 

Divine’s determination and “hard work earned her high scores, particularly in math and science. She went on to develop a love for science that drew her into the field of nursing,” JRS’ leadership says in the February 11 report. 

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While she had qualified to join university, her stepfather was not supportive of her campus studies and declined paying her tuition fees, the leaders of the Jesuit entity say, adding, “It was then that Divine was introduced to JRS’s Naweza Project. She received a scholarship that set her on her academic path.”

However, as the Malawian student was getting used to university, the COVID-19 pandemic struck leading to closure of institutions, a decision that saw Divine go back to her family at the 27-year-old refugee camp. The closure also meant she could not finish her degree by 2022 as she aspired.

“As for my schoolwork, Naweza provided tertiary scholarship students with laptops that allowed us to follow online courses. We were also provided with internet bundles to address issues of poor network connection, so that I could keep up with my courses,” Divine says. 

When COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and Divine resumed her studies, “she had to adjust to a lack of resources such as unlimited access to the library—only small amounts of students are now allowed to use the facility, as a preventive measure,” JRS officials say. 

“She also feared for her health when she had to return to clinical practice at Mzuzu Central Hospital, since the students were not given enough personal protective equipment. But being back on track with her studies renewed her hope,” they further narrate in the February 11 report. 

Amid the challenges, Divine says she has managed to do some group work with friends. She further notes that the leadership of Naweza continues to offer her monthly internet bundles, an offering that helps her download necessary books and tutorials.

To young girls tempted to give up on their dreams because of poverty and other difficulties, Divine says, “Take up the challenge and forge ahead despite obstacles.” 

The nursing student acknowledges that girls do not easily choose science subjects and admits that “it was not easy to score such good grades until she made it her personal passion and dedication.” 

“I was fostered by my teachers and mentors to work hard in science so that I could be counted worthy among the few, those who become bright torches shining afar. I would urge young girls to study the sciences as they will give you an advantage in a competitive job market, especially in the medical field,” Divine says.

For her, nursing “is all about being compassionate and having a caring heart towards everyone, since it is a career where you tend to meet different people.”

“There is joy in being a helping hand, and the moment I care for someone else with unconditional love gives me a feeling of having achieved something extraordinary in life,” Divine continues in reference to nursing profession.

Instituted through a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 22 December 2015, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science recognizes the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. 

This year’s event was marked under the theme, “Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.”

ACI Africa adapted this story from the February 11 report by JRS Southern Africa.