By Amanda Westfall
On 17 August, South Sudanese and Sudanese refugees Anur, Sami, James, Abdalaziz, and Poch went to college for the first time. They are part of the first group of 42 refugees on their way to becoming professional teachers.
As agents of change for their communities, they will use their new skills to improve the quality of education for refugee children. Abdalaziz Ramada, Sami Balla, and James Jawalla have been refugees for 7 years. Anur Ismael has been a refugee for 20 years. Poch Jackson Petov has been a refugee for 25 years, his entire life.
All five fled the conflict in Sudan and South Sudan. All five lost loved ones, families and friends. Some, like Poch and James, have survived as refugees with no family at all –either lost or killed in the conflict.
All are known as ‘refugees’ to their friends, to Ethiopian host communities, the Ethiopian government, and to the world. With this status they cannot legally work in Ethiopia and have had limited opportunities for college or university to enhance their skills and become professionals… Until now.
In July this year, 42 refugee incentive teachers in Benishangul-Gumuz region were given an opportunity of a life time. Abdalaziz, James, Amur, Sami, Poch, and 37 others were enrolled in the region’s teachers’ college. The refugees rode a bus for eight hours, moved onto the GilGel-Beles College of Teachers Education campus, and are currently studying for their teaching diplomas.
For refugee teachers, long-term opportunities for skills development have been nearly non-existent, since trainings are typically offered as short courses, giving them the minimum skills to educate refugee children. Therefore, and not surprisingly, only 33 per cent of those who teach in primary schools in the region are qualified professional teachers who hold teaching diplomas. This means that the majority of refugee children are receiving their primary education from unqualified personnel, many of whom have not even completed secondary school (23 per cent).
However, the Ethiopian Government has made a commitment to improve the situation for refugees and give them opportunities to integrate within Ethiopian society, as demonstrated by the government’s nine pledges to support refugees and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework process in Ethiopia. They understand that it is crucial to provide opportunities to refugees for career growth, especially in the teaching sector, so that the quality of education in the camps can improve and that children have better education, better opportunities, and better skills to make positive contributions to their communities – whether in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, or where ever they end up in the future.
A Desire for More Opportunities
The opportunity arose because of an ambition to expand knowledge. In 2017, Poch, along with his colleagues demanded more opportunities. In the camps, all they earn is 700 Ethiopian Birr per month (about US$25) to ‘volunteer’ full time as teachers in primary schools. With no chances to go to college, become professionals, and earn a decent wage, something had to change.
“We had a meeting with school principals. We asked them, ‘Why can’t we get training to improve our skills?’ We are stuck in one position. Then we waited. Finally, [the opportunity] came and we have a partner to help us continue education.” (Poch)
Because of his ambition to expand his knowledge, as well as his understanding of the Ethiopian language, Amharic, Poch is the group’s student representative at the college. And he fought a hard life to reach this status. After his father was killed in the conflict in South Sudan, his mother fled to a refugee camp in Ethiopia while he was still in the womb. When he was in Grade 2, a conflict broke out in the camp and he was separated from his mother, never to see her again. With incredible determination, he managed to learn Amharic, gain a full primary and secondary education, and become an incentive teacher (in addition to being the best football goal keeper in Sherkole Camp). But just being a ‘volunteer teacher’ with no relevant qualifications was not enough.
Dreams for College Become Reality
In early 2018, UNICEF, UNHCR, and the Ethiopian Government, along with financial support from Education Cannot Wait, made dreams become reality. Posh, Anur, Sami, James, Abdalaziz, the 37 others from the Benishangul-Gumuz Region, and 301 others from Gambella Region were going to college.
In total, the programme brings 343 refugees to study and learn with their fellow ‘host’ Ethiopian students. The courses are taught in English, and they can choose which track to study, from Generalist, to Physical Education, Integrated Sciences, Math, Social Science, or English. They are provided with a full scholarship, which includes education, room and board, health care, and transport services to/from the college or camps. The regional government and colleges support with training, learning and integration at the school, while UNICEF, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and UNHCR coordinate, finance, and manage the project.
A Chance for Generational Change
These refugee student-teachers are part of a new movement of change for the refugee communities. With new skills in teaching methodology, classroom management, and course-specific instruction, their knowledge will be passed on to the children in the camps.
As James and Sami explain, “I am proud of this programme. It will enable me to improve the knowledge of my community.” (James)
“Now, we can go back with the diploma and say we are teachers and we are professionals! I now have pride to work at the school.” (Sami)
With their new diplomas, Posh, Anur, Sami, James and Abdalaziz explained that they want to go back to the camps and use their new skills to improve the quality of education for their communities.
As the first group to enjoy this opportunity, they now set an example for future refugee student-teachers, so that each year the quality of education for refugee children continues to improve with an increase in more qualified teachers.