Jacob Yen Alier's inspiring journey from refugee camp to Mastercard Foundation Scholar leader

By Jacob Yen and Brenda Odhiambo

Jacob Yen Alier's story is one of determination and the transformative power of education. Born and raised in South Sudan, Jacob's life took a dramatic turn when civil war forced him to flee his home and seek refuge in Uganda in 2013. He eventually settled in Nyumanzi Refugee Camp in Adjumani District, where he has lived since 2014 with his sister and her children.

“When I arrived at the refugee camp, I thought my dreams of higher education were shattered," Jacob recalls. "But I refused to give up. I worked hard and with the support of organizations like the Mastercard Foundation, I was able to pursue my studies." Jacob's determination paid off when he was accepted into the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at USIU-Africa in Kenya, a life-changing opportunity that enabled him to access quality education and network with like-minded individuals. "The Program has made me realize that God's time is the best. I went from a refugee school to secondary school on a bursary, and now I'm pursuing my dream degree program," Jacob says.

As a Pharmacy student at USIU-Africa, Jacob’s interest in the field is driven by the dire health situation in refugee camps, recalling a tragic incident 10 years ago, that saw people in the camp lose their lives due to the administration of wrong medication.

"There is a lack of medical personnel and facilities, leading to unnecessary deaths and suffering. I want to change this narrative by bringing better hospitals and collaborating with my colleagues to help marginalized communities access safe healthcare," he adds.

Jacob, who is the current Mastercard Foundation Scholars Council President at USIU-Africa, notes that his leadership journey has been years in the making, starting in high school. Inspired by his experiences, he founded the Konybaai Education Initiative, which supports vulnerable children in his refugee camp. So far, the Initiative has successfully supported three children in primary school. His goal is to expand this initiative to reach more children and provide them with the opportunity to pursue higher education and achieve their dreams.

"My experience as a refugee has taught me the value of education in transforming lives and communities. Growing up in a refugee camp, I witnessed firsthand the limitations and challenges that come with the lack of access to quality education. Despite these challenges, I was fortunate enough to receive an education, which has empowered me to become the person I am today," he says.

Transitioning to USIU-Africa was not without its difficulties. "Coming from a refugee camp and transitioning to a prestigious international university like USIU-Africa was a massive cultural shock for me. I had to adjust to a new environment, new people, and a new way of life," Jacob explains. He also had to adapt to a digital world that was completely new to him. "In the refugee camp, I had limited access to computers and the internet. Suddenly, I was expected to submit assignments online, conduct research using digital resources, and communicate with my professors and classmates through email and online platforms. It was overwhelming, but I was determined to learn."

Jacob's hard work and the support from his community of Mastercard Foundation Scholars and the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program team at USIU-Africa helped him overcome these challenges. "They provided me with training and support to develop my digital skills, and they connected me with students who understood my experiences and challenges. Together, we learned to navigate the digital world and embraced the opportunities it presented," he says.

Jacob's aspirations go beyond personal success. He hopes to use his education to give back to his community in meaningful ways. He plans to expand the Konybaai Education Initiative to provide educational opportunities and resources to disadvantaged children, empowering them to break the cycle of poverty and become future leaders. Additionally, he aspires to establish a pharmacy in his refugee camp, providing affordable healthcare services to his community, including the provision of essential medication and health education initiatives that will promote preventive care and healthy living practices. He also credits his experiences as the foundation of his perspective on education and community service, noting that in addition to empowering him and being a source of strength, education has also made him a better leader. "I have learned to approach problems with humility and empathy, knowing that everyone's journey is unique. I strive to use my knowledge and skills to make a positive impact in my community."

To young refugees aspiring to pursue higher education, Jacob offers this advice: "Never lose hope. Education is the key to unlocking your potential and changing your circumstances. Embrace it, and it will take you places you never thought possible. Don't be afraid to ask for help and don't give up on your dreams. You are the future leaders and change-makers of our continent, and education is the tool that will empower you to achieve greatness."

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