Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Education: Escape from ignorance

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1996

Children's access to education is a primary concern in refugee camps. Courses offered normally follow the curriculum in the refugees' country of origin.

Within six months of the Somali refugee influx into eastern Ethiopia's Hartisheik camp in 1988, primary schools were organized for children. Classes were held under plastic sheeting that did not last very long, recalls Geert van de Casteele, UNHCR's education officer.

"The eastern region is in a dusty area. Windy. No trees. Children made holes in the plastic sheeting. After three or four months, the schools were gone and had to be replaced," said van de Casteele.

Lack of water in the semi-arid region prevented the construction of school buildings until 1991, when prefabricated materials were brought into the camp. Two schools have since been constructed. In the last school year, which ended in early July, the schools had an enrolment of 1,304 children 1,083 boys and 221 girls both refugees and locals.

UNHCR's policy is to ensure that refugee children have access to education, which is recognized as a basic human right. It funds governments and non-governmental organizations to construct and operate schools for refugees. Globally, more than 500,000 children benefit from UNHCR's programmes for primary and secondary schools, says Margaret Sinclair, UNHCR's senior education officer. UNHCR also supports literacy classes and vocational training for adults.

Courses offered in these schools normally follow the curriculum in the refugees' country of origin, using familiar languages of instruction. In countries where repatriation cannot be foreseen in the immediate future, consultations are then held among host governments, refugee representatives and UNHCR to see if a "mix" of subjects incorporating elements in both the studies programmes of the countries of origin and the host government can be offered to the refugee children. Help is given by UNHCR wherever local schools can accommodate refugee children.

In general, host countries allow the education of refugee children. Shortly after 250,000 Rwandan refugees flooded into Kagera district in Tanzania in April 1994, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNESCO and private agencies, including the German GTZ, immediately organized schools in a unique inter-agency operation, conducting classes under plastic sheeting.

However, there are exceptions, even in the Great Lakes region, host to 1.7 million Rwandan refugees. In the eastern Zaire camps holding one million Rwandan refugees, there is no education for refugee children. Since the Rwandan refugee influx into Zaire in July 1994, primary schools had been operated on an ad hoc basis by refugee volunteers. They received some modest international support from various agencies, including UNHCR. But these schools have been closed since February when the Zairians decided to shut down all commercial activities in the Rwandan refugee camps in an attempt to encourage people to return to Rwanda.

UNHCR is now negotiating with Zairian authorities to reopen the schools. Apart from the fact that education is a basic right under various international legal conventions, the out-of-school youths are contributing to increasing insecurity and criminal incidents in the camps.

In Hartisheik, keeping the students occupied is one of the concerns of refugee elders when schools are closed for the annual two-month vacation. Volunteer teachers hold classes in makeshift backyard schools in the camp.

One of these volunteers is Mussa Abdilahi Abid, 27, who calls his small hut made of twigs, leaves and rags the "Almis School" after a popular mountain resort in Somalia. Mussa, whose university studies were interrupted by the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, says this is to remind his pupils that there is such a place in Somalia that the refugees can return to and be proud of.

On a Saturday afternoon, several dozen Somali children sat on stones as Mussa gave lessons in English. His programme also includes mathematics, science and readings from the Koran. He uses books he brought with him on his escape from Somalia in 1988 when the Somali refugees first flooded into Ethiopia.

"I hope to be able to help these children escape the ignorance that has made them refugees," says Mussa.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)