Sheer determination pushes Ethiopian refugee student to make history as the highest performing student in Somaliland’s national primary exams.

By Ahmed Mohammed Osman in Hargeisa and Njoki Mwangi in Nairobi


In June of 2019, while many of her peers were out socializing and having fun, Shukri Habib Saed was busy burning the midnight oil. She was determined to get the best possible grades in her final exams and secure a place at a top secondary school.

Her efforts did not go to waste. When the results of the national primary examinations were finally announced in August, Shukri’s family was beside themselves with joy – with a score of 690 out of 700 marks, she was the top candidate in the region, making history as the first student to score the highest marks ever recorded in Somaliland’s national exams history.

“I am delighted to have made my family and community proud with my achievement. They have given me wonderful gifts and words of encouragement,” says Shukri.

The 16-year-old high achiever’s remarkable performance did not come as a surprise to anyone since she consistently topped her class almost every year, for the eight years that she attended 18 May Primary School in Hargeisa.

“Each year was an exciting time for Shukri because she often received prizes because of her good grades,” explains her mother, Rahma Jamal.

“They have given me wonderful gifts and words of encouragement.”

Shukri credits much of her success to her supportive mother whom she says has always wanted a better life for her children than she had growing up.

“My mum looked for ways to break the cycle of poverty that she had known. She motivated me and my siblings to study hard,” she says. “Although she never went to school, she knows the value of a good education and has always urged us to excel in our studies so that we can be successful.”

Thanks to her top grades, Shukri received a scholarship from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and education partner, Norwegian Refugee Council, to study at Amano Boarding and Day school – an elite institution in Somaliland for high performing students.

For Shukri, her admission was bittersweet as it came at a challenging time when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of all schools in March, for nearly six months. When the school term resumed in August with virtual classes, Shukri’s transition into her new school was tough as she could not afford a smartphone, computer, or internet for the online classes and had to rely on her friends’ phones to access her classes.

Somaliland has since eased its restrictions and classes are gradually resuming but Shukri still has to raise funds to cover additional school costs not covered through the scholarship, which is a lot for her family to handle.

Her parents, originally from Ethiopia, fled to Somaliland two decades ago for fear of persecution. Shukri’s father is the main breadwinner, caring for his wife and four children on a modest salary as a casual laborer.

“It is very difficult for my parents to pay for my education because I come from a large family with a low income. We have other challenges like poor housing, it’s a struggle to make ends meet,” adds Shukri.

She is however very grateful for the support she has received so far. While she was in primary school, she was among hundreds of refugee children who received UNHCR and NRC support that included tuition fees, school uniforms, textbooks, and notebooks.

“I hope I will be lucky again to receive more support since my parents are unable to provide all I need,” she says.

Millions of refugee children globally struggle to get a decent education – a situation made worse by COVID-19. According to UNHCR’s education report issued in September, 3.7 million refugee children are out of school – nearly half of the 7.1 million refugees globally who are of school age.

“My ultimate dream is to become a doctor and help the most vulnerable people in my community.”

At the primary level, 63 percent of refugees are enrolled in school, compared to a global level of 91 percent, while at the secondary level, 24 percent of refugees are in school, compared to 84 percent of secondary-age children worldwide. At higher levels, the figures are much more dismal with only 3 percent of refugees in tertiary institutions.  Gender is also a key driver as girls continue to be disproportionally affected, having less access to education compared to boys.

Shukri’s educational journey is far from over but her sights are set on the finish line.

“My ultimate dream is to become a doctor and help the most vulnerable people in my community,” she says with a smile.

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