Season 4, Ep 01: From Kakuma to the World: Mary Maker’s Advocacy for Refugee Education

“Do you even know we exist? Do you have an understanding of refugee camps?” asks Mary Maker who was once a refugee from South Sudan. Mary never forgot the harsh realities of the Kakuma camp in Kenya. With her firsthand experiences of limited access to higher education and employment, she turned her trials into action. While teaching in the camp, she seized an opportunity to study at Bridge2Rwanda, which enhanced her skills before attending St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Her journey inspired her to co-found Elimisha Kakuma, a college preparatory program tailored for the refugees at Kakuma, using education as a means to empower and rebuild lives.


In today’s episode of Women Igniting Change, Mary joins host Robbin Jorgensen to discuss the formidable challenges faced by refugees, especially young women, in pursuing education. She shares insights from her TED Talk and advocacy efforts that are pivotal in garnering university support for her program. Mary also reflects on the empowering realization of education’s role in transforming lives.


Tune in to explore how Elimisha Kakuma is striving to meet the UN’s “15 by 30” pledge, aiming to enable 15 percent of refugees to access tertiary education by 2030, perpetuating a cycle of opportunity for future generations.



  • “You would see their eyes light up. Every night in the camp we would sit on a mat and all the older folks would tell us stories of home, something to keep us connected. And our mothers would cook food from home because everything tasted like war, and they wanted us to feel a taste of home.” (6:17 | Mary Maker)
  • “I really hated to assimilate, I hated to learn languages, and it should be a fun thing, but for me it was a sign that I might move next. I was never sure that this was going to be permanent. (7:49 | Mary Maker)
  • “One time one of the students asked me, ’You talk so passionately in class and about education. Why are you still in the camp? Why aren’t you in college?’ They know the dead end. They know there’s a dead end. A lot of refugees have graduated high school and they don’t have any place to go.” (16:52 | Mary Maker) 
  • “The biggest challenge was, ‘How do we reach universities?’ Because, number one, they would say, ‘OK, we don’t trust you.’ There is trust that needs to be built. And this is where my advocacy comes in. I have a Ted Talk. I am a UN ambassador. This is my credential. I will knock at every university door to let them see what the camp is like.” (30:01 | Mary Maker) 
  • “I challenged every university; there were 300 universities in the room. I said, ‘Do you even know we exist? Do you have an understanding of refugee camps?’ because we easily can be a part of the monolith of international students, but we’re not. We don’t have a home to go back to. We have ten times the problems that a regular student who is applying.” (30:44 | Mary Maker)