From ice cream seller to star student

At just 10 years old, little Hibo Ali couldn’t bear to see her pregnant mother struggling to find food for her and her four siblings after they fled from Somalia.

Just two weeks into their long and arduous journey to Dadaab, Kenya, Hibo felt she had to do something to help. Their father, suffering from mental illness, had stayed behind in Mogadishu, leaving the mother, Miski Khalif, to look after the children on her own in her ninth month of pregnancy. That’s when Hibo started selling ice cream in the refugee camp to make some money.

“I could see my mother suffering to get us some food, so I started selling ice cream,” she says. “I would go around the camp all day and then go back home with whatever I’d earned and give it to my mother.”

But being a young girl on her own exposed her to all sorts of dangers as she sought customers across the camp.

“The hardest was dealing with older, bigger boys, who demanded free ice cream,” she said. “They would harass me and beat me up if I refused.”

Sometimes they would even rob the little money that she made that day and she would have to return home empty-handed.

Hibo and her mother, Miski Khalif, in the kiosk she now runs. Photo: Karl Schembi/NRC

Her mother nods as she thinks back to the anxious hours and days when her daughter would be out alone selling ice cream.

“We were facing big challenges; we had no money,” Miski Khalif, 49, explains. “I was always afraid she’d been kidnapped whenever she came back late.”

A sign

One day, Hibo saw a notice on a wall about the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) work with children who were out of school. Children who enrolled would get through what is known as the Accelerated Education Programme. Children between 10 and 18 years old would get school bags, books, pens and pencils and a school uniform to get them back in the classroom.

Hibo had actually never been to school before, but this did not deter her from seeking more information.

“I told my mother about this programme, and we went to the school together,” Hibo says. “When I saw children coming to school in their uniforms with school bags, I knew that this was where I belonged, and my mother agreed to enrol me.”

A bright student

Teachers at the centre where Hibo studies speak of a bright, enthusiastic student who, with a bit of support from NRC, could leave the harsh life of a child worker on the streets of Dadaab to be in the classroom.

“Hibo is getting brilliant results and her mother understands the power of education,” says her teacher, Ali Abdi. “She’s been coming to school for the last four years and she never missed a lesson.”

Hibo with her fellow students in the classroom. Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC

NRC’s Accelerated Education Programme supports out-of-school children and youth from refugee and host communities in Kakuma, Kalobeyei and Dadaab.

The programme provides a compressed curriculum within a shorter timeframe, with a high focus on literacy and numeracy. The programme has enrolled more than 8,000 students, with 4,500 transitioning to formal schools since it was started in 2017.

Hibo’s two older sisters also enrolled in the programme and, as well as the support to go to school, they also get cash to buy hygiene kits.

“NRC has helped me get my children to school,” their mother says. She now washes clothes for her neighbours to earn an income, and also has a little kiosk to sell food and snacks. “My dream is to see my children enlightened by a good education, able to help themselves without depending on handouts or having to do hard jobs.”

Hibo says she wants to become a teacher by continuing her education.

“Four years ago, was the last time I went out to sell ice cream,” she said. “I understood that life is better in school, and that this is the best way to become someone useful.”

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