CrossRef citations to date

Tracing pathways to higher education for refugees: the role of virtual support networks and mobile phones for women in refugee camps

Pages 284-301
Published online: 01 Dec 2016


In this paper, we explore the role of online social networks in the cultivation of pathways to higher education for refugees, particularly for women. We compare supports garnered in local and offline settings to those accrued through online social networks and examine the differences between women and men. The paper draws on complementary original data sources, including an online survey of the Somali Diaspora (n = 248) and in-depth interviews (n = 21) with Somali refugees who do or have lived in the Dadaab refugee camps of Kenya. We find an important interplay of local and global interactions, mediated by mobile technology, that participants identify as critical to their access to higher education. Our analysis relates these interactions to shifting social norms and possibilities for refugee women’s education. Our findings directly address the use of information and communication technology in expanding opportunities for higher education for women in refugee camps.


We would like to thank many people who have contributed to this work: the young people in Dadaab, Nairobi, and Canada, for participating in this research and sharing your successes and challenges; Windle Trust and UNHCR for facilitating field research in Dadaab; Kenyatta University, in particular Josephine Gitome; the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees project, in particular Wenona Gilles, Don Dippo, Aida Orgocka, and Emily Antze; and Elizabeth Adelman, Bethany Mulimbi, Sameena Eidoo, Salathiel Ntakirutimana, and Shazia Khan for research assistance.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors

Dr Negin Dahya is an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School. Her research examines the social and cultural conditions of technology use in educational settings for refugees, and for underrepresented communities in Canada, USA, and globally. Her work includes understanding the use of digital and mobile technology in refugee education and for girls and women.

Dr Sarah Dryden-Peterson is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She leads a research programme that focuses on the connections between education and community development, specifically the role that education plays in building peaceful and participatory societies. Her work is situated in conflict and post-conflict settings, particularly with refugee communities. Her research reflects connections between practice, policy, and scholarship and is strengthened through long-term collaborations with Ministries of Education, UN agencies, NGOs, and communities.


1 Kleine’s (Citation2013) choice framework is designed to operationalise and apply Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach (1999) to ICT for Development studies. The choice framework is comprised of four primary sections: structure and agency which are co-constitutive, degrees of empowerment pertaining to the existence of choice, sense of choice, use of choice, and achievement of choice of an individual or community, and development outcomes or achieved functionings within an ecological system. The premise of the framework is to maintain Sen’s core principles for economic development focused on expanding individual freedoms and pursuing avenues that allow people in developing settings ‘to live the lives they have reason to value.’ Kleine applies the choice framework to several case studies in Algun, Chile, where she explores how the different elements of the framework (structure, agency, choice, outcomes) interact towards achieving or failing to achieve development goals. Kleine complicates the notion of choice within variable and interrelated structures (such as institutional structure, discourse, policies, technologies, social norms, and law); she positions these structures as co-constituted by agency, which is itself related to the different personal and external resources available to an individual and within a community. Through this framework, Kleine offers nuanced discussions about ICT for development maintaining the desired goals and outcomes of the individual or community at the center. We explore the relationship between structure and agency throughout this paper, and touch on degrees of empowerment and outcomes where they are visible.

2 WhatsApp is a free Internet-based application for instant messaging. Nimbuzz is a cross-platform application for mobiles and desktops that allows for free instant messaging and calling, aggregating accounts such as SKYPE and Facebook, among other social networks.

3 Refugees in Dadaab, as elsewhere under United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandates, can work for humanitarian aid and development agencies and be reimbursed through a stipend referred to as ‘incentive wages’. These funds are significantly less than what Kenyan nationals working in comparable positions are paid in the same location, within the same agency.

4 The Tripartite Commission for the Voluntary Repatriation of Somali Refugees is focused on supporting the voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees to Somali (UNHCR Citation2016).

Additional information


The study was generously funded by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

Log in via your institution

Log in to Taylor & Francis Online

PDF download + Online access

  • 48 hours access to article PDF & online version
  • Article PDF can be downloaded
  • Article PDF can be printed
USD 50.00 Add to cart

* Local tax will be added as applicable

Related Research

People also read lists articles that other readers of this article have read.

Recommended articles lists articles that we recommend and is powered by our AI driven recommendation engine.

Cited by lists all citing articles based on Crossref citations.
Articles with the Crossref icon will open in a new tab.