Seeking Refuge to Achieve a Dream

Filed Under: EARTH Stories
Date: June 20th, 2023

Titir Nelson Longok (‘26, Uganda) was just a boy the day he left his plow behind. He was with his family, moving the heavy farm tool with his small arms to trace furrows and prepare the soil for planting. This work was essential to his single mother, to Nelson, and to his six siblings. This was how the family obtained much of their food to live. But one day, his brother arrived and told them it was time to leave. It was only months earlier that his two older brothers had traveled from Uganda and settled in Kakuma, a refugee camp established in Kenya in 1992 that houses more than 200,000 people from countries like South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

The Longok family was not fleeing war or natural disaster. They were desperate to get out of poverty, to have better opportunities, and, most importantly, to treat their mother’s illness: a menstrual hemorrhage that was physically weakening her. In Uganda, they had not been able to get medical help to treat the condition, and they knew that in Kakuma they could access the hospital care she urgently needed.

Nelson quickly prepared to build a new life in a refugee camp in a foreign country with a new language. The move also gave him an opportunity he had not had—the chance to study. Conditions in Kakuma are complicated. The camp is overcrowded, and violence is rife. But he and his family would have access to shelter, food, and medical care so Nelson could focus on studying and work on his childhood ambition to build a decent life for the whole family.

Studying in Kakuma proved to be a challenge. The classrooms were so overcrowded that teachers had limited space to move around and teach. Nelson said there could be as many as 150 children in a single class, one next to the other, eyes wide open, trying to pay attention and absorb as much knowledge as possible. Nelson managed to stand out as an exemplary student. He had a passion for learning, and he knew this was the path to his personal and professional development, supporting his family, and helping his community in Uganda.

With great effort, Nelson obtained a scholarship to attend a boarding high school. But when he finished, he couldn’t access university opportunities due to his immigration status as his asylum request in Kenya had been rejected. According to UNHCR (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), by the end of 2021 more than 5.4 million people had applied for asylum in a country other than their own. Like Nelson, many don’t succeed, limiting their possibilities for work, accessing health systems, education, and having the most basic rights. For this reason, Nelson returned to Uganda where he researched different universities, careers, and scholarships until, through the Mastercard Foundation, he learned about EARTH University. He was drawn to the concept of EARTH, knowing that if accepted he would have to live on the other side of the world, learn Spanish, adapt to a multicultural environment, and learn by doing. He felt ready.

Nelson is already achieving great progress in his first year of studies at EARTH. He has developed a project with his brother to support small farmers in their community and pass on the knowledge he is acquiring at EARTH so they can apply good agricultural practices in their daily work. The project is called Wetter Farm and focuses on alternative irrigation methods, food security, and resilience to climate change.

“The opportunity to study at EARTH means a lot to me and also to my family and community. I believe that with the knowledge I acquire in these four years, I can create opportunities in my country so that other young people don’t have to migrate in search of a decent life, as happened to me and my family. I am very grateful to EARTH and the Mastercard Foundation for giving me a full scholarship.”

Nelson has also teamed up with other young Africans to create PovArts, an organization that aims to academically support and guide students seeking university opportunities so they can apply for scholarships, get into universities, and break the cycles of systemic poverty, primarily in rural areas and vulnerable communities.

While studying at EARTH, Nelson has worked in different areas of the University. He has become the barber for the student community and uses his artistic skills to sell portraits and drawings inspired by his country and personal experiences. He financially supports his six siblings and his mother with the money he earns. Nelson says he feels a big responsibility to be a strong support for his family, and that is why he gives his best in everything he does.

Nelson is thankful when he remembers that day when he left his plow and his life changed. He is thankful for his mother’s health and the care she received in Kakuma. He is thankful he attended school, even though it was overcrowded. He is thankful for his older siblings’ initiative to improve his family’s livelihood. And he is grateful every day for Uganda’s fertile land, his family’s resilience, and the support of Kakuma through actions that will grow over time to have a far-reaching impact on many people’s lives.

We admire you, Nelson!