Feature: School or the streets? Young refugees in Freetown must choose as UNHCR funds diminish

News Stories, 25 November 2002

© UNHCR/F.Fontanini
Liberian refugee Zinnah Mansally &; in UNHCR-sponsored school uniform &; selling bread after school in Freetown.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UNHCR) Zinnah Mansally became a "mother" when she was barely into her teens. For the last decade or so, Zinnah, now 22, has single-handedly cared for her sister Owita, 13, after they lost their family in Liberia's civil conflict.

The sisters are Liberian refugees in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where they live in a house with 15 men, women and children. They live on leftover food and bathe with donated soap. To survive, Zinnah ekes out a living by baking bread and cakes, which she sells in the streets of Freetown. In her absence, her housemates often harass her little sister.

For the girls, education offers the only outlet from their hard life. Zinnah currently attends a government-run secondary school while Owita is in primary school. Under the UN refugee agency's school programme, their tuition fees are paid for and they each receive two sets of school uniforms.

But UNHCR's current funding shortfall may force the girls out of school and into the streets. Owita has already been thrown out of school once, when the money for her fees did not arrive on time.

"For secondary school it is not that bad, but for primary school they chase them away and ask them to come back with the money," explains Zinnah. "I had to go and talk to Owita's head teacher."

Owita is now back in school, but if she continues delaying payment, she may be suspended again. To keep her sister in school, Zinnah may have to sacrifice her own education to work full time.

Currently, her after-school baking sales bring in 1,000 to 1,500 Leones ($0.60 to $0.90) a day. "That is what we use for transport, clothes and shoes," says Zinnah. "Over the holidays I can probably make more because I'll sell for the whole day, but for now it's no more than 1,500 Leones."

When asked how long she has been in Sierra Leone, Zinnah says she cannot remember the exact day or year she left Liberia as she was still very young then. All she remembers is that one day many years ago, when she was playing at her neighbour's house in Liberia's Lugan town, she suddenly heard gunshots and fighting. She ran into the house and locked herself inside, hiding. When things calmed down, she went home to find that her parents and older brother had been killed. Owita, who was only a baby then, was spared.

Their neighbour, a Sierra Leonean refugee, took the sisters under her care and fled back to Freetown with UNHCR support and protection. While there, the neighbour met and married a Liberian refugee and moved back to Liberia, leaving the girls to fend for themselves.

Zinnah and Owita were registered as refugees by UNHCR, and were given the option of receiving more complete assistance in camps outside the capital. Unsure of how she and her sister would adapt to camp life, Zinnah chose to stay in Freetown, where a Good Samaritan agreed to take them in.

In October this year, the sisters started receiving monthly food rations from UNHCR. As part of the vulnerable refugees group, they also receive some non-food relief items, as well as medical and educational assistance.

In all, UNHCR provides 1,850 primary and 460 secondary school children with education assistance tuition and uniforms in Freetown through Initiative pour une Afrique Solidaire, a non-governmental agency financed by UNHCR.

According to the UN refugee agency, there are now close to 4,600 urban refugees in Freetown. Zinnah and Owita are among thousands of Liberian refugees who have been living here for over a decade since fleeing the 1990 war at home. This year alone, renewed fighting in Liberia has driven more than 1,100 new urban refugees into Freetown; some 40,000 more are sheltered in seven camps and three way stations throughout the country.

The new influx is straining UNHCR's already-overstretched budget. Recently, the agency appealed for an additional $8.3 million to meet the needs of Liberian refugees who continue to arrive in Sierra Leone and Guinea, until the end of 2003. Although UNHCR received a good response from donors on its previous special appeal for the Liberian crisis earlier this year, its regular budget for West Africa remains severely under-funded. If funds are not forthcoming, the agency may not be able to provide even the most basic assistance to refugees like Zinnah and Owita.

The demands are great. Every day, a steady stream of people visit the UNHCR office in Freetown asking for their cases to be reviewed and requesting educational sponsorship, medical assistance, plastic sheeting and help to trace lost family members.

UNHCR helps urban refugees by providing health care for those in need. It also distributes monthly food supplies and subsidies for vulnerable cases the elderly, female heads of household, pregnant women, some medical cases and the disabled. The assistance includes rice, vegetable oil, sugar, milk, cocoa and 10,000 Leones per person.

For shelter, some vulnerable refugees receive plastic sheeting for their roof structures. At the same time, UNHCR is also identifying booths in Waterloo camp, near Freetown, to be rehabilitated for urban refugees willing to relocate from IDP (internally displaced persons) camps in town.

But considering the financial constraints the refugee agency is working within, such basic services can no longer be ensured. In the same way, the future of young refugees like Zinnah and Owita can no longer be guaranteed if they are forced to find solutions outside the classroom, in the streets of Freetown. Hopefully, that is a lesson they will never have to learn.

By Francesca Fontanini
UNHCR Sierra Leone