• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Rising standards of education in Malawi improve the future of refugees

News Stories, 13 December 2006

© UNHCR/J.Redden
Headmaster Augustine Chipula stands in the library of Umodzi Katubza Primary School, whose students have the best results in the area.

DZALEKA REFUGEE CAMP, Malawi, December 13 (UNHCR) The students who file into classes at Umodzi Katubza Primary School on the edge of Malawi's main refugee camp are expected this month to repeat the performance that in recent years has given their school the best results in the area.

"I think they understand why they are here, the importance of getting the most from education," said Augustine Chipula, the school's headmaster since the performance began rising in 2002. "It is through hard work on both sides the students and the teachers."

The record speaks for itself. In a country where only modest numbers of children progress beyond the primary level, the school at Dzaleka Refugee Camp sends a steady stream of students on to secondary schools outside the camp last year that meant 36 of the 46 students who were in Grade Eight.

"The other schools in this district are far behind. We came first in this zone out of 22 schools," Chipula said. "Students are selected on merit [for secondary school] and our students are doing very well," he added in a recent interview at this camp, which houses some 4,600 people from Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Credit for the programme goes to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which became UNHCR's implementing partner for education in Malawi in 2002. The school, containing a pre-school and grades one through eight, now teaches 1,179 students 616 boys and 564 girls. Importantly for community relations, 153 of those students are Malawians attracted by the standards of the school.

The performance may not look impressive when compared to standards in the developed world. But in a country where many classes must be conducted under trees and some teachers work only in theory, JRS is demonstrating how to improve education.

"Motivated staff motivate the children. They like to come to school," said Sister Ann Elizabeth DeYuyst, the head of JRS in Malawi, making clear that more work remains. "Far from saying everything is perfect, we are working to improve the standard of education."

It is a question of fundamentals. The school has necessities like good buildings and desks. A library with more than 3,000 volumes has been built up and was recently repainted. Unlike state schools, which suffer chronic shortages of basics like texts and paper, Umodzi Katubza is well supplied by UNHCR.

The 26 teachers, largely new since JRS took over, receive regular training to improve their skills and are closely monitored nearly half are refugees. "They have taken pride in the school inside and outside the classroom," said DeYuyst.

Unlike other schools in Malawi, regular classes are supplemented by clubs and other activities. French, important to refugees from French-speaking countries like the DRC, has been added to the curriculum. Other languages used by refugees, such as Swahili, are taught in clubs.

However, the long school day also points to a reason for the limited number of Malawian students. Some find the standards of Umodzi Katubza too demanding or do not have the ambitions of refugees, while others must also spend time working to provide food for their families.

JRS's goal now is to show the same success at the school in Luwani Refugee Camp in the south of Malawi, the country's second camp. Results have improved since JRS took charge of it in 2003, but DeYuyst says the staff and student performance still lags that of Umodzi Katubza.

Leslie Norton, JRS education coordinator in Umodzi Katubza, is concentrating on building the capacity of the staff to ensure the education programme is sustainable if there is ever a reduction in UNHCR support. Although there are no plans for major changes at the refugee camps in Malawi, smaller refugee numbers in southern Africa mean that UNHCR operations will be reviewed as governments take direct responsibility.

Students now are on their end-of-year break, with a new school year beginning in January. Graduates of Umodzi Katubza will be competing for the limited places in Malawi's secondary schools. They are almost certain to again outshine other schools.

"When our students go to another school, they are often at the top," said DeYuyst, a Belgian who has been helping improve the lives of people in Africa since 1959. "They know education can be a way out for them. They are a lot more motivated than Malawians."

By Jack Redden in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi




UNHCR country pages


Education is vital in restoring hope and dignity to young people driven from their homes.

DAFI Scholarships

The German-funded Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative provides scholarships for refugees to study in higher education institutes in many countries.

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol

The most frequently asked questions about the treaty and its protocol.

Rights, Responsibilities and Refugees

Related news stories to Unit plan for ages 12-14 in Human Rights and Refugees: Rights, Responsibilities and Refugees

Prominent Refugees

An A-Z of refugee achievers around the world.

Chad: Education in Exile

UNHCR joins forces with the Ministry of Education and NGO partners to improve education for Sudanese refugees in Chad.

The ongoing violence in Sudan's western Darfur region has uprooted two million Sudanese inside the country and driven some 230,000 more over the border into 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Although enrolment in the camp schools in Chad is high, attendance is inconsistent. A shortage of qualified teachers and lack of school supplies and furniture make it difficult to keep schools running. In addition, many children are overwhelmed by household chores, while others leave school to work for local Chadian families. Girls' attendance is less regular, especially after marriage, which usually occurs by the age of 12 or 13. For boys and young men, attending school decreases the possibility of recruitment by various armed groups operating in the area.

UNHCR and its partners continue to provide training and salaries for teachers in all 12 refugee camps, ensuring a quality education for refugee children. NGO partners maintain schools and supply uniforms to needy students. And UNICEF is providing books, note pads and stationary. In August 2007 UNHCR, UNICEF and Chad's Ministry of Education joined forces to access and improve the state of education for Sudanese uprooted by conflict in Darfur.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Chad: Education in Exile

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to ServePlay video

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to Serve

War forced Lim Bol Thong to flee South Sudan, putting his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. As a refugee in the Kule camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, he has found another way to serve. Just 21 years old, Lim started teaching chemistry at the school's primary school and last year was promoted to Vice Principal.
South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety Play video

South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety

Years of fighting between Sudan and rebel forces have sent more than 240,000 people fleeing to neighbouring South Sudan, a country embroiled in its own conflict. After weeks on foot, Amal Bakith and her five children are settling in at Ajoung Thok refugee camp where they receive food, shelter, access to education and land.
From refugee 'Lost Boy' to state education ministerPlay video

From refugee 'Lost Boy' to state education minister

The subject of the best-selling book What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng's journey has taken him from Sudanese 'Lost Boy' to education minister in his home state in South Sudan. He talks here about the causes of displacement, the risks of politicizing refugee resettlement, and the opportunities that come with staying positive.