News Stories, 14 March 2005
THE HAGUE, March 14 (UNHCR) – At a makeshift refugee camp in the centre of The Hague, Dutch education minister Maria van der Hoeven presented "Refugee for a day", an online education kit of UNHCR and its non-governmental organisation partner, Stichting Vluchteling. The minister also nominated Sierra Leonean refugee John Koroma as "honorary mayor" of the refugee village.
With one touch on a laptop, the opening page of the school kit, "Refugee for a day", was projected on a large screen inside a tent for an audience of school children from the Hague Montessori School. The online kit allows pupils from primary schools to learn about the lives and experiences of refugee children, through the stories of kids who escaped war and violence in Liberia and fled to Sierra Leone.
"This package is accessible to all," said director Tineke Ceelen of Stichting Vluchteling. "Children can work with it in school or at home, individually or in groups, and learn about refugees."
Launched last Thursday, "Refugee for a day" was developed by UNHCR and Stichting Vluchteling with support from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, as part of a 2.2 million grant. The major part of this contribution went to support projects of the two organisations in Sierra Leone to help Liberian refugees, Sierra Leonean returnees, and the local communities that host them.
"If you had to run and could only take one thing with you, what would you take along?" Van der Hoeven asked the Montessori pupils. "My family!" said one boy. "No, that's too much. Do you have any idea how it is to be a refugee? Maybe you don't. Millions of children didn't want to know either, but they are now nevertheless refugees."
The minister then hung an official chain of office around the neck of John Koroma, a former child soldier and refugee from Sierra Leone. Amid the cheers of the school children – all "refugees for a day" – Koroma was thus officially installed as the "honorary mayor" of the refugee camp set up for the occasion: a collection of huts made of plywood and UNHCR sheeting, set up in front of The Hague's Town Hall.
"As children, we all have our dreams," Koroma told the pupils. "You are at school, you can think about what you want to do later. My dreams did not go beyond the next day: Will I have something to eat, will I still be alive?"
In 1995, when he was 9, Koroma's home village in Liberia was attacked by rebels who raped his sisters and abducted him to serve as a child soldier. "Apart from the clothes on my body, I only had my weapon. That was my home, my brother, it protected me against everything that was bad."
Two years later, when his unit was in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, he finally managed to escape and leave for Europe. "When I arrived in the Netherlands, I didn't feel safe, I wanted to go back. I thought white men were bad, because they had brought the weapons to Liberia. I was angry and aggressive. Only when I started doing athletics did I calm down."
In 2000, Koroma discovered that his mother and one of his sisters were also in the Netherlands. "I told them: My family is dead, who are you? It was only after a positive DNA test that I believed them."
Koroma now sees his future in the Netherlands. He is the athletics champion of Limburg province, and has set up "Xama", an organisation in the city of Maastricht that accompanies asylum-seeker minors through sports and cultural activities.
"Of course, there's no place like home, but I have no family there," he said. "I can only go back if I'm sure that it's safe again."
By Diederik Kramers