Eritrean refugee women and their Ethiopian hosts in the Afar region of Ethiopia ensure children attend school

By Amanda Westfall

Afar region, Ethiopia-On 21 September, in Asayita Woreda, Afar Region, Ethiopia, female community leaders who missed the opportunity for education when they were young, are now ensuring their children don’t follow that same path. Through the UNICEF-introduced and UK-Aid funded Accelerated Readiness Programme, children from both refugee and host communities in Afar Region, Ethiopia are participating in the summer programme to help prepare for primary school.

Zahara Halo, 28, a mother of three from Afar Region, Ethiopia, has never been to school. She was married, had a child at 13, and spent the latter half of her childhood raising her children and performing household chores expected of Afaari women: collecting water, cooking, building huts, tending cattle, and raising children.

Rokiya Mohammed, 35, is an Afaari woman from the Afar region of Eritrea. She also has never enjoyed the benefits of education, having spent much of her life doing household chores and caring for her seven children.
Approximately 13 years ago, Rokiya fled Eritrea to Ethiopia during the war between the two countries. She arrived with other Eritreans to Asayita Woreda where she has integrated into the host Ethiopian community and has received support ever since.

Zahar and Rokiya, although from two different countries, have many things in common. Both have learned to live in harsh desert climates, both are from pastoralist cultures, and both never had the opportunity for school. However, both are determined to change that pattern for their children.

They are part of the community’s Women’s Self Help Group, where they work to change the conditions for women and children in the community. Among other group activities, such as adult literacy classes and providing loans for small business, they are the delegated community leaders who ensure their children go to school.

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Eritrean refugee girls, Aysa, Musa, and Lali, attend UNICEF’s ASR programme at Sembile Primary School along with their fellow refugee and host community classmates. © UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Tadesse

When these women heard that the new Accelerated School Readiness (ASR) programme was coming to Afar, they were determined to help. As Zahara explains:
“As the group leader (of the Women’s Group) we have difficulties in finding group members who can read and write, and we suffer a lot from this. That is why I am inspired to put my child in school. I do not want him to suffer as I have.”

Accelerated School Readiness(ASR) 

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Eritrean Refugee and Ethiopian host community children participating in ASR at Sembile Primary School © UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Tadesse

ASR was designed for vulnerable children who never had early learning opportunities (like private or public pre-school) but are of age to begin primary school. It was developed through proven research on the importance of play-based activities (i.e. story-telling, art activities, literacy games) to help develop early literacy and communications skills. ASR gets children excited for school, ready for school, and keeps them in school.

In Ethiopia primary school dropout rates remain unfortunately high, with the highest rates found in Grade 1 (at 18 per cent), which is strongly linked to a lack of quality pre-primary opportunities. ASR is an innovative response to this challenge. In 2015, UNICEF introduced the initiative in rural areas of Ethiopia. Because it is relatively inexpensive (approximately US$13 per child), quick (two months over the summer), and effective, it has become a popular option for disadvantaged areas.

In 2016, ASR was offered to refugees and their host communities in an integrated and equitable approach. When they heard the news that ASR would be coming to refugees and host communities in Afar Region, the Women’s Group was ready and excited to support.

ASR is only possible through female community leaders

In Asayita Woreda, children are anywhere and everywhere – in condensed urban areas and expansive rural communities. In the vast deserts of the Afar Region where the climate is harsh and transportation services are minimal, it can be a major challenge to get children to school – a feat that is only possible by the determined female leaders of the community.

In less than one week, these women helped mobilize 258 children from urban and rural areas of Asayita Woreda, an area that spans almost 1,700 square kilometers.

Zahara explains how they were able to accomplish this: “We go from door-to-door and provide school materials for low income children … thereby giving the parents incentives to send children to school.”

Another Women’s Group member, Zahara Ali adds, “I know all of the mothers. I go knock on doors and say that you better send your children to school. I check up on each of them.”

Equal opportunities for refugees and host community children

Some Eritrean refugees, like Rokiya, have integrated into the local town, but some have decided to stay in the refugee camp just a few kilometers away. When Rokiya heard that ASR is also happening in the camp she was extremely grateful. “We are so happy our brothers and sisters also get this programme. We are grateful to see our children have equal opportunities like the host communities.”

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Zahara and her six-year-old son Zuruson
© UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Tadesse

Because of determined women like Zahara and Rokiya, positive change is possible for the next generation in Asayita Woreda. As Women’s Group member Misre Ali explains, “We are in the darkness. We never had a chance to be educated and we don’t want this for our children. We want them to know many things.”

Since the introduction of ASR in Ethiopia, UNICEF has directly supported over 45,000 children in addition to the thousands more the Government has helped through their ASR interventions. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children have enjoyed its benefits in becoming well prepared for primary school.

How to improve the quality of education in refugee camps? Qualify the teachers.

In Ethiopia, refugee incentive teachers are on their way to obtaining professional teaching diplomas.

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

South Sudanese refugees and current college students, Poch Jackson Petov and Hamid Abdallah Hamad in front of Gilgel-BelesCollege of Teacher Education. © UNICEF Ethiopia 2018 Amanda Westfall
South Sudanese refugees and current college students, Poch Jackson Petov and Hamid Abdallah Hamad in front of Gilgel-Beles College of Teacher Education. © UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Amanda Westfall

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.