Refugee teachers in West Africa champion education despite challenges

The dedication of refugee teachers worldwide is celebrated as they ensure displaced students keep learning, despite a global pandemic, wars and conflict.

Ivorian refugee teacher Bahibo Natacha, teaches French at Ampain D.A primary school in Ampain camp, Ghana.
© UNHCR Ghana

The usual sounds of children shouting gleefully as they pour out of their classrooms at the end of the school day are missing at Ampain D.A primary school in western Ghana.

As Bahibo Natacha walks across the school compound, she can’t help but think of how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the situation in the school. 

“My work has been badly affected because school is now closed,” says the 40-year-old French teacher. “Before, my students had picked up their French studies well but now, I worry that they will fall back.”

She has been teaching at the school in Ampain refugee camp since 2014. 

“I decided to take up teaching because I love children,” says the Ivorian refugee, who worked as a microbiologist in Ivory Coast before she fled to Ghana in 2011, due to post-election violence.

“I decided to take up teaching because I love children.”

Now living in Ampain with her mother and two children, she has taken up teaching with a passion, teaching French to grade three and four students.

“I enjoy teaching so much. I use games to engage and teach the children which makes the classes enjoyable,” she adds.

With the school closures, she has been giving classes to students for at least two hours daily, using e-readers procured by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. During the sessions, all COVID-19 health measures are observed.

UNHCR has also installed television sets in the camp to enable children connect to the various TV learning channels.  USAID, in partnership with the Ghana Education Service, has also provided workbooks for lower primary students to do revisions with their parents and guardians via radio lessons.

“I believe these measures are working as the children are learning something,” she says.

Further north, in Mali, teachers Issa Farazi and Maria Diarra are conducting classes in much more complex conditions, where schools, teachers and students are often targeted by various armed groups.

In recent months, there has been a sharp increase in attacks in the Sahel region, forcing people to flee into Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger which share borders.

  • Gaimava Ruth is a volunteer teacher at Minawao public school in Minawao camp, Cameroon.
    Gaimava Ruth is a volunteer teacher at Minawao public school in Minawao camp, Cameroon. © UNHCR Cameroon
  • Maria Diarra teaches at Tobine school in the volatile Hausa Foulane commune in Mali's Gao region.
    Maria Diarra teaches at Tobine school in the volatile Hausa Foulane commune in Mali's Gao region.  © UNHCR Mali

“The main challenge we face are emergencies due to insecurity,” says Issa, the director of N’tahaka undergraduate school in N’tillit commune. “It’s difficult to secure the whole school, the teachers and especially the children.”

Maria, who teaches at Tobine school in Hausa Foulane in Gao region agrees, noting that the volatile security situation is of concern to all.

“During conflict, teachers and students are all afraid and we can’t go to work sometimes,” adds the 25-year-old teacher.

Even with these challenges, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, the teachers still keep going.

“The love I have for my job and for the children motivates me the most,” says Maria. 

Issa agrees, adding, that “the responsibility of passing on knowledge to children and the community is important for their future.”

Gaimava Ruth, 32, has been a volunteer teacher at Minawao public school in Minawao camp in northern Cameroon for four years. Her biggest challenge is helping refugee children deal with the traumas they have endured, particularly survivors of Boko Haram attacks. 

“First of all, I have to help them remove it from their minds that they are different from other children in the host community,” she says. “I help them understand that we are all equal and they must have hope for their future.”

 She is encouraged by the various measures in place to prepare for when schools reopen such as the installation of hand washing devices, provision of hand sanitizer and the systematic wearing of masks.

“Education is very important for every child...that is why we will not give up.”

“The community understands the importance of education and the need for their children to respect these government measures so they can stay safe,” she explains.  

On World Teachers Day, marked every 05 of October, teachers worldwide, especially refugee teachers, are celebrated for their courage, passion and dedication to ensure students continue learning. The day provides aunique opportunity to take stock of the challenges that teachers face and their role in achieving global education targets.

For these refugee teachers, learning must go on, no matter what – this is after all, their calling.

“Education is very important for every child so that they can become whoever they dream of becoming. That is why we will not give up,” says teacher Bahibo.

Writing by Catherine Wachiaya in Nairobi, Kenya with reporting from Patience Folley in GhanaLeandro Salazar in Mali and Moise Amedje in Cameroon.