Against all Odds, South Sudanese Refugees find a way to access education

By Amanda Westfall

On 19 December, 2017, Nyawal John, a South Sudanese 17-year-old girl says that her goal in life is to be educated. After escaping conflict in her village in South Sudan, she is doing whatever it takes to access education in Ethiopia.

Their villages are ravaged as they flee conflict and leave family, livelihoods and education behind. They travel for months, sometimes without food, water, or shelter, to arrive in a new country that offers the basic services required for survival. But when the South Sudanese people spend year after year waiting for the conflict in their country to subside, the time keeps ticking on their education.

Nyawal John, 17, who arrived in Tsore Refugee camp in Benishangul-Gumuz, Ethiopia two years ago, has gone almost three years without formal education. As a young teen, she had to leave almost everything behind in South Sudan – even her parents, who she hasn’t heard from since fleeing, not knowing if they are alive today or not.

Tsore Refugee Settlement offers pre-primary and primary school, but unfortunately, there is currently no secondary school available for Nyawal who says that she should be attending 9th grade right now.

But this did not stop Nyawal in her ambitions for education. She first started working as a translator at the camp health centre. However, she felt detached from education so decided to be a teacher in the camp’s pre-primary school, which is where she is currently working.

At the school, she teaches a total of 85 four-year-old children each day where she is exposed to new UNICEF-supported teaching and learning materials and capacity building programmes. She is able to use the various skills and materials to improve her teaching and also help her gain new knowledge for her own educational growth.

The main thing Nyawal wants right now is to learn. “I need to get knowledge. In the future what I want is to finish my education … If there is a place in my country for this I will be there. But iff it is here, I will be here.”

Nyawal dreams of being a computer scientist one day. When she was a young teenager in South Sudan, her father bought her a computer from Rwanda, which she cherished and managed to carry with her as she fled to Ethiopia. Unfortunately, because of financial needs she had to sell it once she arrived. Still, she has managed to continue practising by going to Tsore’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs office weekly to use their computers.

Education for Refugee and Host Community Children Benishangu-Gumuz, Ethiopia
Education for Refugee and Host Community Children in Tsore Zone pre school Benishangu-Gumuz, Ethiopia Tsore Zone A Pre School, Assosa. © UNICEF Ethiopia /2017/Tadesse

From site to site in the camp there is an ardent yearn for education. Kemal Olika, an Ethiopian teacher in the refugee primary school in the camp says it best, “Without any training and just by their confidence, they [refugee teachers] still teach and strive for education. I appreciate them. Even the [refugee] students’ respect is very high. South Sudanese respect the teachers. They listen. They really want to learn.”

At the settlement, UNICEF supports the refugee children’s aspirations for education. Through an integration programme with the host-Ethiopian communities, UNICEF supports teacher training programmes and extra-curricular activities including; materials and equipment for sport, play and learning – so that refugees can benefit from their host country’s education system. In addition, UNICEF supports the construction of new classrooms to ease the congestion in schools and advocates for construction of secondary schools for older students, like Nyawal.

When forced away from everything she knows – her home, parents, schooling, and cherished computer – against all the odds, Nyawal continues to strive for education.

Education in adversity: South Sudanese refugee children insist on their right to attend school

By Elissa Jobson

Child protection Kule Refugee camp  1 and 2
Crowd of around 100 children, some as young as 6 or 7 years of age, who have gathered outside the chicken-wire fence of the school compound in Kule refugee camp demand to be allowed onto the school’s premise 23, June 2014 Kule South Sudanese refugee camp Gambella Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ayene

GAMBELLA, ETHIOPIA, 25 JUNE 2014 – “School is good for the boy and the girl,” sings ten-year old Nyanget Tohok, her voice, cutting through the midday humidity, rings out clean and clear. “SCHOOL IS GOOD FOR THE BOY AND THE GIRL,” chorus the crowd of around 100 children, some as young as 6 or 7 years of age, who have gathered outside the chicken-wire fence of the school compound in Kule refugee camp.

They have not come for lessons. They are not there to collect their schoolbooks. They are there to demand their right to an education. “We are singing for school,” says Nyanget. “We need to learn but there is no space.” The school only has room for 1,200 children but more than 6,000 students registered and are waiting to enrol when the space allows. The exiting places were allocated on a first come, first served basis.

“When we don’t come to school we cannot be happy. We have seen our friends coming to school but we are not given a chance to learn,” laments Majiok Yien, aged 9. This young boy wants to be an English teacher but his dream has been violently interrupted by the civil war raging in South Sudan, which forced him and his family to seek refuge in Ethiopia.

On land provided by UNHCR and the Ethiopian Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA), four 6m x 4m classrooms have been built by Save the Children with vital support from UNICEF. The school operates two shifts: one in the morning from 8am to 12pm and a second from 1.30pm-5.30pm. The class sizes are huge – 150 children each – and the whole curriculum is being taught by just 10 teachers, all recruited from the refugee community.

Returning to normality

Education
South Sudan Refugee Students attend a class in a makeshift classroom 25, June 2014 Kule South Sudanese refugee camp Gambella Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ayene

“School is important for the children. When they are in school they forget what they have seen in the war. School is the first priority to help remind them of normal life,” explains School Director Lam Chuoth Gach, himself an exile from South Sudan’s bloody conflict. The students have been through a terrible ordeal, he adds. They have seen people – for some their parents and siblings – killed directly in front of them. They remember the sounds of the bullets and the long, arduous journey to safety in Gambella. “When we started classes it was difficult to bring their attention to the teaching but now they are listening,” Mr Gach continues. “That is why are worried about the children who are not yet in school.”

Jael Shisanya, Education Adviser for Save the Children feels that the teachers are doing a good job under extremely difficult circumstances. “They are lesson planning and they have written a timetable but the challenge we have is that the numbers of students are overwhelming. We don’t have adequate space,” she says pointing to the four tents made of wooden poles and plastic sheeting that serve as classrooms. Early childhood education is taking place under a tree which doubles as a church on Sundays, Ms Shisanya says, but if classes are to continue during the imminent rainy season a more suitable location will have to be found. “Funding is an issue. We could do much more. We could build better structures. But we need more money for education,” she insists.

“The children are eager to learn and the community itself is yearning for school. ‘We can look for food but we can’t easily get education for our children,’ the parents tell me. They don’t want their children to forget what they have learnt,” Ms Shisanya says.

Adolescents not catered for

Education
14 year old Buya Gatbel. He is one of the lucky few who have secured a coveted place in a makeshift classroom in Kule South Sudanese refugee camp Gambella Ethiopia, 25 June 2014 . ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ayene

For the children themselves, education is a lifestyle, an essential part of their weekly routine. “I need to go to school. On Sunday I must go to church and on Monday I must go to school,” asserts 14 year old Buya Gatbel. He is one of the lucky few who have secured a coveted place. Buya is happy to be in school but he wishes that the situation was better. “There are no desks. The classroom is very small. We need pens, uniforms, bags and umbrellas for when it rains. There are no exercise books or text books and many children are outside. You need to build more schools, and build a library,” he says.

Currently the school is only teaching grades one to four. “I’m studying grade four but it is not really my grade,” Buya explains – in South Sudan he was in grade eight. His best friend, Changkuoth Chot, aged 18, is in the same boat. “I want to go to grade eight but it is better to be in grade four than to not be in school,” he says.

Ms Shisanya is particularly concerned about those adolescents that are not currently in education: “Teenagers are saying they are so depressed. There is no work.” There is no school.” Tezra Masini, Chief of the UNICEF Field Office in Gambella, is also worried. “Donors are more interested in providing education for younger children but it is protection issue for the older ones. If we don’t provide them with school they may go back to South Sudan to fight.”

Dech Khoat, age 19, bears these fears out. He joined the rebel White Army when the conflict began in December last year. “I’ve come for a rest from the fighting,” he says. In the future I will go back but if I can continue my education I will stay in the camp.”

Click here for latest update on South Sudan refugees status in Ethiopia.

On World Refugee Day, UNICEF calls on governments to provide child refugees with the same care, services, dignity and protection as all other children

Children in Leitchour refugee camp, Gambella region Ethiopia.
Children in Leitchour refugee camp, Gambella region Ethiopia. Children are the most affected by the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Bizuwerk

NEW YORK, 20 June 2014 – “As violence plagues Syria and other countries across the region, record numbers of displaced children are seeking sanctuary in Europe, putting them at increased risk – both from the perils of the Mediterranean crossing and the uncertainty of what awaits them in host countries.  Many more child refugees are expected as ‘boat season’ increases the number of people attempting to make their desperate journey.

“Child refugees, many of whom are unaccompanied, are often detained in unsafe and unsuitable conditions.  They are also far more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and other violations of their rights.

“Every child is entitled to the protections set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; few need them more than child refugees.  On World Refugee Day, UNICEF calls on governments to provide child refugees with the same care, services, dignity and protection as all other children.

“Through no fault of their own, these children have already lived through trauma beyond the ability of most people to endure; when they seek a safe haven, they should receive exactly that.”

See our Emergency and resilience page, for more refugees related resources