Sudan’s second civil war was a quarter of a century ago, but refugees from that conflict still live in a Kenyan refugee camp called Kakuma. Occupied continually since 1992, Kakuma refugee camp now holds around 200,000 refugees from 20 African countries, which makes it a city of its own, as large as Orlando, Florida. To deal with the youth present in the camp, there were 26 primary and secondary schools in the camp, most run by UNESCO-supported charity groups or churches.

The schools in Kakuma don’t look like schools we’re used to. Each teacher has between 150 and 300 students, even those teaching kindergarten or first grade. There is less than one textbook per 10 students. Students speak over 100 different languages from dozens of language groups, and are often delayed due to years of missed school in their home countries. Teachers are often refugees themselves, with deficits in education or training. Support is hard to come by.

But it’s not entirely absent. Support networks for both student and teachers exist in a cutting edge form—their phones. Students seek feedback and translation in Facebook groups. Teachers Google answers to questions they aren’t certain of, and bounce ideas and plans off one another through group chat apps like WhatsApp.

“The goodness about the [WhatsApp] groups is that they are flexible and the teachers can get information quickly…so it’s not restricted like in a classroom kind of setting,” the leader of a training program in Kakuma told the Brookings Institution. “[Also, these groups] are not expensive and we are also leveraging on existing technology.”

They also use their phones to loop parents in on their students’ education, which has particularly been shown to benefit young women.

While it’s common to think of refugees in Africa as living in a techless, impoverished wasteland, mobile phones and smartphones have been a part of the landscape since their invention. Villages that have not yet adopted the car often have their own cell towers and conduct all business via mobile networks. In a UNESCO exercise about evacuation, even very young children made it a priority to grab the family phone concurrently with food, money, and water.

Photo: A class at Kakuma refugee camp. Photo CC-BY-NC-ND EU/ECHO/Bertha Wangari