Mali refugee students set up "government" in UNHCR-backed school in Niger

News Stories, 5 October 2012

© UNHCR/C.Arnaud
Chouaïbou introduces the children's government to its guest, Tabareybarey refugee camp.

TABAREYBAREY, Niger, October 2 (UNHCR) When fighting in northern Mali forced Chouaïbou and his family to flee from their village last May to nearby Niger, the 15-year-old feared he had not only lost a home but also his education.

Chouaïbou, with his parents, three siblings and their neighbours, ended up in Tabareybarey camp, where they joined some 8,500 other Malian refugees, many of them children in need of education.

The UN refugee agency places a priority on providing access to education and is working with Niger's Ministry of Education, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and humanitarian aid group, Oxfam, to provide primary and secondary education for as many Malian refugee children as possible. More than 60 per cent of the 58,000 Malian refugees in Niger are of school age.

Although UNHCR has had to concentrate its efforts for Malian refugees on protection and life-saving activities due to limited funding, it has supported an education project in Tabareybarey, a refugee camp opened in May some 40 kilometres from the Niger-Mali border.

UNHCR has constructed nine classrooms which were ready to welcome 764 children and 12 teachers for summer classes run by local non-governmental organization Plan Niger from July to September. These were important in keeping the refugees occupied during a traumatic period in their lives.

And the children, under a unique initiative pioneered by UNICEF, get to have a say in the running of their new school, forming a "school government" with a ministerial cabinet. Chouaïbou was delighted to be named Minister of External Relations and enthusiastically got into the spirit of things.

The students in the cabinet work closely with a school council, which is composed of the school director and community leaders in the camp. "This initiative is very good for the morale of the children," said Hamidou Alidirou, the headmaster and a refugee. "When you work on something, you're focused and feel useful. You forget the difficult situation that brought us all here."

He said the children took their role playing very seriously. "It's important to create a positive dynamic for the children because we don't know for how long we're going to be here," Alidirou added.

The school cabinet has eight ministers, seven boys and two girls, and is headed by 14-year-old First Minister Mariam, whose proudest moment came last month when she welcomed a VIP visitor Jan Knutsson, outgoing president of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee. He was in Niger to help raise awareness about the refugees and drum up donor support for them.

Knutsson, who finishes his year-long term as ExCom president in Geneva today, also met External Relations Minister Chouaïbou and Justice Minister Alassane, aged 10, who helps resolve disputes among his classmates.

Chouaïbou presented the school's 2012-2013 action plan to the Norwegian diplomat. "We want to be ready for the start of the school year in October so we had to make sure to have our strategy finalized," he explained, adding: "We have a lot of responsibilities as a government because we need to make sure that everyone feels they are a part of our programmes and participate."

Aashild Eliassen, a UNHCR education officer in Niger, welcomed the initiative, saying that to achieve the best results it was important for children and young people to participate in all stages of education planning. She looked forward to the coming academic year. As did Chouaïbou, who, nevertheless, said he would rather be a teacher than a politician when he became an adult.

Tabareybarey is one of five official sites hosting Malian refugees in Niger. The population displacement has come at a time when Niger and other Sahel region countries are suffering from a severe food crisis and devastating floods. The host country needs continuing international support.

By Charlotte Arnaud in Tabareybarey, Niger




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.

Mali Crisis: Urgent Appeal

More than 300,000 Malians have been forced to abandon homes in the hope of finding safety. Help us protect them.

Donate to this crisis

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

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks met with Malian refugees in Damba Camp on July 6, 2012, in northern Burkina Faso. The acclaimed soprano is using the visit to highlight the plight of tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from conflict in their country this year and are living in camps or settlements in neighbouring countries. As of early July, more than 198,000 Malians had fled to Mauritania (88,825), Burkina Faso (65,009) and Niger (44,987). At least 160,000 were estimated to be displaced within Mali, most in the north.

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

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.