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A virtuous Circle to combat vicious cycle of violence

A virtuous Circle to combat vicious cycle of violence

14 September 2007

Sterlin's teacher Julia presides over the local Learning Circle, a UNHCR initiative to help displaced children catch up in school.

BOGOTA, Colombia - In the Bogota suburb of Altos de Cazuca, a small one-storey house painted by children offers a few touches of colour in the otherwise grim shantytown landscape. Inside, the classroom walls are covered with drawings, some childish and pretty, others showing evidence of the violence the children have witnessed: burnt houses, men with guns, bleeding bodies.

This is one of five Learning Circles, all run with UNHCR support, in this Bogota neighbourhood, where a high percentage of the population arrived fleeing from violence. The Learning Circles are already full and there is growing demand; teachers like Julia Ribera are determined that no child should be turned away unless there is another option. "Education is the right of every child," she says.

But armed conflict, forced displacement and poverty all contrive to deprive thousands of children of this right and the Ministry of Education estimates that up to half a million young Colombians under the age of 16 are out of school. The Learning Circles aim to provide an educational net for these youngsters who, for one reason or another, have fallen through the national school system.

"Many children come here because they arrived in the city in the middle of the school year and there is no space for them in normal schools. Unless we take them in, they'll lose a whole year and may never go back to school," Julia explains. At any given time she has between 35 and 45 students, most of them under 16 although there is no upper age limit. The children are divided into three smaller circles according to ability, and she moves between cramped rooms supervising their activities.

"The biggest challenge is the high turnover," she says. "There's usually at least one new pupil every week." Many of the children are traumatized when they arrive, some have seen a parent die or been caught up in armed fighting. Most have just lost their homes and are new in the city.

"That's why we start every day with a relaxation exercise," Julia says, adding that the curriculum includes a lot of Arts. "There is no point trying to teach children when they are still scared and hurt," she explains. The pupils also eat breakfast and lunch at the school, the only food many of them will get all day.

Children such as 15-year-old Sterlin need remedial teaching to be brought up to the standards of mainstream education. "It's amazing how much he has changed, the youngest children look up to him as a role model now," Julia says of the boy.

She admits that her job can be very hard at times, especially because of the terrible life stories some of the children bring. "But no other work would bring me the same satisfaction," she concludes.