Jesuit Agency Helping Children with Special Needs at World’s Largest Refugee Camp in Kenya

Fr. Lasantha Deabrew, SJ, the Jesuit Refugee Service Project Coordinator at Kakuma Refugee Camp. Credit: Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)

The leadership of the international refugee organization of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has, in a documentary, explained how it is reaching out to children with special needs living in the world’s largest refugee camp, Kakuma, located in Northern Kenya, within the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar.

Through the JRS Special Needs Centre located within the 29-year-old camp, officials of the refugee agency are supporting children with cognitive and intellectual disabilities by offering them education as well as protection, they say in the April 14 video documentary obtained by ACI Africa.

According to JRS Project Coordinator at the refugee camp, Fr. Lasantha Deabrew, children at the Centre are taken through two programs before they proceed to join mainstream schools.

Through the non-formal education program, JRS’ teachers offer an integrated way of looking at the children’s lives through inculcation of values, engagement in recreational activities, as well as accompaniment, Fr. Deabrew explains.

The second program involves occupational therapy, through which the teachers help the children with special needs to improve the skills they need for everyday living at the camp that is home to an estimated 200,000 refugees, majority of them from the world's youngest nation, South Sudan.


JRS officials at the Centre are also working with families of the children in an effort to create community awareness about the rights and requirements of children with special needs to reduce stigma and promote inclusive education.

“The children with cognitive and intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to stigma and discrimination and are often segregated,” the JRS Project Coordinator at the camp says in the five-minute video documentary, adding that the segregation makes them “more vulnerable.”

Referencing the children with special needs, he further notes, “Because of their stigmatization, they are not included by other children during activities that every child has to enjoy in the camp.”

The Jesuit Cleric attributes the stigmatization experienced by the children with special needs to the cultural and religious backgrounds of their respective communities, which makes people believe they are “cursed.” 

For John Paul Burundi, a father of one of the children with special needs, the JRS training he has attended has helped him “a lot” to realize that “a child living with disability is just like other children.”

More in Africa

Making reference to his son, he explains, “Sometimes back, I did not love him enough but with training I gradually learned how to look after a disabled child, how to care for him, how to love him, how to take him to school. All this opened my eyes.”

For Fr. Deabrew, the success stories of the JRS Special Needs Centre in Kenya’s Lodwar Diocese lies in the transformation that the children undergo at the institution, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) supports.

“When they are admitted to our Centre for assessment, sometimes they cannot handle themselves,” he says referencing the children, and adds, “They do not know how to wash, how to eat, play and how to associate with others because they are stigmatized in the camo.”

However, through the training program offered at the Centre, “we can see they are improving little by little and today we see the children who are ready at the end of the year to be discharged to the mainstream schools,” Fr. Deabrew further says.

Paul Burundi attests to the transformation of the children with special needs saying, “JRS helped my child with a lot of things. Before I brought him to JRS, he was a child with a lot of problems. He didn't know how to read, how to wash his hands, even handling anything, or putting food into his mouth, was a difficult task for him.”


“But the day I took him to JRS, they started teaching him. Now my child is perfect,” he adds in the documentary titled, “Kenya: Providing protection and education to refugee children with special needs.”

“Yes, these children have disabilities but they have the abilities to do so many other things like playing, dancing, singing and all the creative things they can do,” Fr. Deabrew reiterates in the April 14 documentary.

Founded in November 1980 by Jesuit Fr. Andrew Arrupe, JRS has the mission “to accompany, serve, and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, that they may heal, learn, and determine their own future.”