Parents torn between survival and school

Refugee children wash their families' clothes in Djabal camp. Many children are overwhelmed with daily chores and as a result attend school only sporadically.   © UNHCR/H.Caux

DJABAL CAMP, Chad - With four school-going children, education is clearly important for Zacharia Abakar Adam, who is also president of the APE (Association de Parents d'Elèves - association of pupils' parents) in Djabal camp, eastern Chad.

"Educating children in the camp is a top priority for us," he says, noting that in the last four years of exile, parents, teachers, international agencies and the Chadian Ministry of Education have been doing their best to get young refugees into primary school. But it's been an uphill struggle.

Parents often face a huge dilemma on whether or not to send their children to school. "It's always a sacrifice for parents to do so. Almost everyone in the camp is struggling to have a decent life," says Zacharia, which means that economic priorities often come first. "Many parents take their children to help them cultivate in the fields."

During the dry season, some take their children to the nearby town of Goz Beida to work in clothing and brick factories or restaurants in order to supplement the family income. Some girls are also hired as maids by Chadian families in town. But even at home, they're overwhelmed by daily chores such as collecting water and wood, preparing meals, and taking care of younger siblings and elders. As a result, many children attend classes irregularly.

And even though school is free in the refugee camps, parents can't afford to buy uniforms for their children. "Mothers find it very difficult to pay for uniforms for their children to wear in school," says Zacharia. It costs some 3,000 CFA (just over $US6) to buy a school uniform, but most families have, on average, five to six children of school-going age, which means that a family can spend up to 18,000 CFA ($US37) for their children to get an education.

Still, Zacharia insists on each parent's obligation to educate their children: "In Darfur, there was little infrastructure for children to go to school, and most of their parents were illiterate. Now, children know how to read and write."

But a lot remains to be done: "After 8th grade, there is no possibility for the pupils to continue their studies in secondary schools," he laments, noting that there is little motivation for children to remain in primary school when they know they can't further their studies. UNHCR is exploring ways to bring secondary education to the camp, including through radio-based lessons.

Like other parents, Zacharia sees no option to return to Darfur at the moment. "Killings and kidnapping are still happening," he says. "So it's better for my children to continue learning in school here as long as peace evades Darfur."