Secondary school support gives former refugees a chance in Burundi

News Stories, 31 March 2009

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
Geoffrey (in red sweater) and classmates in the boarding school supported by the Refugee Education Trust in Makamba.

MAKAMBA, Burundi, March 31 (UNHCR) As Burundians return home from exile in growing numbers, many are finding it difficult to keep their children in school because the education sector has been neglected for years. There are too many young people chasing too few places, while infrastructure is in a mess and there are not enough good teachers to meet demand.

But organizations like the Foundation for the Refugee Education Trust (RET), one of UNHCR's partners in Burundi, are helping to give young people like 17-year-old Geoffrey an education that offers them a brighter future.

Geoffrey was born in exile in Tanzania, but returned to Burundi briefly before he and his family fled renewed strife and eventually ended up in Zambia. They came back in 2007 as peace descended on their homeland. "I am happy to be home. When we arrived, my father was so surprised, because I still could show him the way to our house," the soft-spoken young man said.

But continuing his education looked to be a major challenge, with schools in returnee areas hopelessly overstretched and overcrowded. Geoffrey was lucky; he found a place last year in a boarding school supported by the RET.

The school in the southern city of Makamba is a model of what can be done to improve education standards and infrastructure in Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, and to ease reintegration for refugee returnees.

Before the RET stepped in to help in 2005, the school in Makamba lacked classrooms and teaching materials, including books. About 20 percent of the students are returnees, which has put a further strain on the infrastructure.

"There was just no space, so we even converted the chemical laboratory into a classroom and borrowed rooms in nearby public buildings," the school director, Jean-Baptiste Ndayiragije, recalled. "In the dormitory, we lacked beds and two students usually had to share one mattress."

The RET has helped turn things round dramatically. "They helped us to construct eight additional classrooms, one large dormitory and supplied us with books," Ndayiragije said. "Last week, a technical team was here to repair windows and toilets. New mattresses for the dormitory have just arrived."

Newcomers like Geoffrey also acknowledge how important outside help has been in boosting standards and facilities, and coping with lessons in French. "This language is so difficult," Geoffrey exclaimed in the flawless English he learned in exile.

This year, he plans to take an intensive French-language course initiated by the RET. He has big plans for the future: "If all goes well, in terms of language and everything, I could become a lawyer or a judge."

But the RET's work is not limited to Makamba. Last year alone, the Geneva-based organization helped 40 schools in high-repatriation areas.

"The schools here lack the capacity to absorb returnee students, and we do not want young returnees to drop out of school," stressed BenoƮt d'Ansembourg, the RET's regional programme manager. "We only address the most urgent and acute needs in secondary schools. This is not long-term development, but targeted assistance for a limited time".

The Foundation for the Refugee Education Trust was founded in December 2000 by Sadako Ogata, the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in response to a need for greater access to, and quality of, post-primary education for refugees, returnees and the internally displaced. It operates around the world and works closely with UNHCR.

By Andreas Kirchhof in Makamba, Burundi