UNHCR sees education as fundamental for South Sudan reintegration
JUBA, Sudan, July 6 (UNHCR) - Providing children with access to education has always been a priority for the UN refugee agency, and in South Sudan UNHCR has been making a difference by ensuring schooling for hundreds of young returnees.
It's a huge task in a region emerging from more than two decades of civil strife, but every new school or college built is important - and in recent weeks UNHCR has constructed another five community-based primary schools in areas of high return.
Such schools need teachers, and UNHCR is doing its part to meet the needs by organizing the construction of teacher training institutes in the South Sudan capital, Juba, and in the town of Aweil. When completed, these two institutes will play a vital role in the further development of education in the south.
The five new schools were built in South Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state with funds donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Of the 330,000 refugees who have returned to South Sudan since 2005, including some 170,000 with UNHCR's help, more than a third have gone to Eastern Equatoria. Some 2 million internally displaced Sudanese have also gone back home.
Construction of the schools has been warmly welcomed by the authorities and the local community. Francis Ben Ataba, education minister for Eastern Equatoria, said UNHCR's help was vital because his ministry had very limited financial resources. "The areas where the schools have been built needed education facilities badly," he said, while noting that more and more people were returning to the area. "We hope these schools will help bridge the educational gaps in their locations."
Each school has room for about 500 students, who will take classes in buildings constructed of burnt brick with corrugated iron roofing. All five institutions will be administered by parent management committees that will try to ensure good teaching standards. Mama Domitila, a parent management committee member, was delighted with the brand-new school in the district of Kudo Payam. "It is the first time we have seen this kind of magnificent building here," she said, with a broad smile on her face.
"We are deeply grateful to UNHCR because the future of our children's education is now assured; we have nothing to give in return, but we pray that the organization lives long to support disadvantaged people like us all over the world," Domitila added. Another parent said: "The future of my children is now assured as far as education is concerned."
Meanwhile, the institutes in Juba and Aweil will provide nearly 500 newly qualified teachers every year after they open in 2010, and thereby create a cadre of trained teachers to educate the next generation of students at schools throughout South Sudan, including the five in Eastern Equatoria.
Described by one senior government official as "manna from heaven," the teacher training institutes are being built with funding from the government of Japan. Trainee teachers will be able to gain practical experience at educational establishments being built as satellite schools for the institutes.
The teacher training institutes will have a major role in the development of education in South Sudan for years to come and their establishment is also expected to encourage more Sudanese refugees to return home. Two decades of conflict and neglect left the south's education sector in tatters. The lack of development is an obstacle to reintegration and that's why UNHCR, other UN agencies and international aid groups continue to support refugees after they return home.
The refugee agency has launched almost 700 reintegration projects since 2005, prioritizing the education sector as a fundamental tool for long-term development. Refugees who received a good education during their exile in camps overseas were concerned about schooling back in South Sudan for their children and some returnees kept their children overseas to complete their education.
Genesis Ohide, a teacher at a school in the Eastern Equatoria capital of Torit, gave some insight into the grim state of the education sector in Eastern Equatoria. "Education has been badly affected [by the war] . . . the students lack textbooks, exercise books and stationery. Most cannot afford to pay the school fees or buy a uniform. Schools have limited capacity and one class may have more than 100 students, which means many of them have to stand outside the classroom," he said, adding that the quality of teaching was generally not very good.
By Peter Farajallah in Juba, Sudan