Determined young Sudanese refugee puts her education ahead of marriage

News Stories, 8 May 2013

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
Aida (right) and her grandmother, who thinks she should get married soon.

YUSUF BATIL REFUGEE CAMP, South Sudan, May 8 (UNHCR) Just over a year ago, Aida Budjut's determination to continue with her education ran into stiff opposition from her grandmother, who believed that the 16-year-old should get married and bear children.

But Aida, a refugee from Sudan, would not be swayed and with the support of a powerful and progressive ally her father she is winning the argument. The teenager recently started a six-month course that prepares non-English speakers to learn the language and eventually teach primary school students in English.

She was one of 400 refugees in South Sudan camps accepted for the course by the Windle Trust International, a UNHCR partner, and has also started working as a kindergarten teacher in Yusuf Batil refugee camp after completing a one-month early childhood development, or ECD, course. UNHCR places great importance on giving refugees access to education, especially for females.

But although Aida is earning the equivalent of US$250 a month to help her family, her granny, Rajab, is still not convinced. "My grandmother thought that because I had attended the course, I would be satisfied and make myself available for marriage," says Aida, "but she does not understand what it is I want."

Aida explains that she does not want to end up being trapped in an early marriage and dependent on her husband, like so many other young women she knows. To date, she has turned down three suitors. "Who will marry her if she keeps turning down marriage proposals?" her grandmother complains.

It's a refrain that the young woman had become used to after months alone with 60-year-old Rajab in Yusuf Batil camp. The whole family had fled their village in Sudan's Blue Nile state in late 2011 after it became a target in conflict between the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North.

Aida and Rajab became separated from the rest of the family and made their way to South Sudan and Yusuf Batil alone. Worried about how she was going to provide for her grandchild, Rajab sincerely believed that only marriage would provide the girl with financial security.

To escape her grandmother's nagging, Aida took to exploring the camp of almost 38,000 people and looking for something to do or study. Then one day her parents and siblings showed up in the camp and things began to change. "I was so happy to see my parents, not only because they were alive," she says, "but also because my father disagreed with my grandmother's insistence that I marry."

Not long after the family reunion, Aida was walking to the market in Yusuf Batil when she came across what looked like a group of people studying in one of the camp schools. On closer inspection, she realized that they were people of her age who were taking part in a workshop for kindergarten teachers.

"I would not leave the school compound until the trainer told me to join the group because I was distracting the class," she recalls. "It was like being back in school. I was so excited," she added of the month-long ECD course.

Meanwhile, she is enjoying the UNHCR-funded Windle Trust teacher training course and is confident of doing well. Like most of the other students on the course, she grew up studying in Arabic, but must now master English, the main language of study in South Sudan.

"It may not be a continuation of my secondary schooling in the conventional sense," Aida says, "but it is definitely contributing to my lifelong goal of learning English and becoming a teacher." The students, all non-English speakers, are taught to use visual, audio and body language techniques of instruction.

"Any non-English speaker can be trained to, by the end of the programme, teach English at, in this case, primary school level," explains Windle Trust's Deborah Namukwaya, who manages the UNHCR-supported teacher-training programme in refugee camps around Upper Nile state's Maban County.

On completion of the training programme, new teachers like Budjut will teach classes of 40 to 50 schoolchildren. At the end of 2012, about 20,000 children were enrolled in schools in Maban County's four refugee camps, which together host some 116,000 refugees. A fifth camp has just been opened.

Meanwhile, Rajab is no longer insisting that Aida get married immediately, but she thinks she should at least find a husband before she turns 20.

By Pumla Rulashe in Yusuf Batil Refugee Camp, South Sudan