New buildings cement school ties among refugees in Sierra Leone
TOBANDA CAMP, Sierra Leone, August 5 (UNHCR) - Fifteen-year-old Theresa Fayia could barely keep her head above water in school. Not that the curriculum in Tobanda refugee camp was too tough or rigid. In fact, it was probably too fluid.
Classes in this Sierra Leonean camp used to be conducted in structures made of plastic sheeting, giving students hands-on lessons in fluid dynamics every time it rained.
"We had to move our desks and benches because the roof was leaking," recalled Liberian refugee Fayia, who added, beaming, "But with our beautiful new buildings, we know this will not happen again."
Thanks to a project funded by Germany's Radio Television Luxembourg (RTL), the students at Tobanda camp can now study in the comfort of mud and cement buildings. This is a huge improvement from March 2003, when the camp was set up to accommodate people fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Liberia.
"When we first arrived, we were disappointed that there was no school in Tobanda camp, but gradually, things started improving and they are still improving. For this we are very grateful to UNHCR and to God," said Yatta Massalay, a 16-year-old Liberian refugee.
School Principal Festus Massaquoi said simply, "We are very much impressed. Our dreams have come true."
The school construction project was conceived last October when Karl Steinacker, who headed UNHCR's sub-office in Kenema at the time, met a crew from RTL, Europe's biggest private TV station, and German celebrity Cosma Shiva Hagen to discuss fund-raising initiatives for refugees and their host communities.
After the visit, Hagen, a popular actress in and around Germany, hosted a programme on German TV that raised funds to build schools, train teachers and provide school supplies in Sierra Leone.
School buildings will be built in all eight refugee camps in Sierra Leone by the time the school term starts in September. Every camp will get at least three new structures with three classrooms each. Some host communities - like those in Tobanda village, where local children attend classes by sitting on the ground in a mud and thatch hut - will also get new buildings.
Inaugurating the school in Tobanda camp this week, UNHCR's Kenema sub-office head, Ibrahima Coly, said, "Today, the story of refugees in all the eight camps and their host communities is about to change from the gloomy past to a bright and promising future. The building of permanent and semi-permanent school structures will no doubt create an enabling environment for the children to learn."
Amid the singing, dancing and cultural performances at the ceremony, 13-year-old Vannie Massaquoi said with a smile, "I am very happy about the new buildings. Now I have hope that I will succeed in life."
Beatrice Kamara, chairlady of the Refugee Education Committee, assured UNHCR and RTL that the buildings would be maintained and that the refugee children, especially girls, would be encouraged to go to school.
Also at the ceremony was Hagen, who said she was happy that the funds had been well used to assist the refugees and their host communities, and appealed to the teachers to "make education a kind of game that every child will love to play."
UNHCR's Coly noted that in view of the improved situation in Liberia, the agency hopes to start facilitating the voluntary return of some 60,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone in October. "While the refugees would be returning to start a fresh new life, we are very happy that the desire of the refugees to acquire knowledge will be assured as the repatriation process goes on."