Tens of thousands of children in northern Cameroon, including many refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, are out of school because of cross-border attacks by Boko Haram.
“The government and aid agencies are grappling with a complex emergency situation,” said Middjiyawa Bakari, governor of Cameroon’s Far North Region.
“Getting enough classrooms, teachers and various forms of assistance to the internally displaced children and refugees remains critical,” he said.
Those now deprived of education include almost half of 62,000 children who have been internally displaced because of attacks by the Nigerian insurgency, which have led to the closure of more than 120 schools since September.
Also out of school are children among 74,000 Nigerians who have fled to Cameroon since March.
According to the UN’s agency for refugees (UNHCR), 60 percent of these new arrivals are children.
There have been at least 18 recorded attacks by Boko Haram in northern Cameroon since the beginning of the year. Almost 100,000 Cameroonians have fled their homes, UNHCR says.
In the three most-affected localities of Logone and Chari, Mayo-Sava and Mayo-Tsanaga, which lie just across the border from northeastern Nigeria, where the Islamist rebel group is most active, 60 percent of schools have been abandoned, 30 percent are now occupied by displaced people, and 10 percent have been either destroyed or looted during attacks, according to a report published last month by UNHCR.
In those places where schools remain open, authorities say they have been encouraging families and relatives to re-enrol the displaced children, so that they can continue the school year, but that challenges abound.
At the Maroua Doualare I public primary school, for example, where over 200 displaced children have enrolled, head teacher Moumine Aloa told IRIN: “These children have added to the existing challenges that we already face, as the displaced have more peculiar and urgent needs than the other students. Many come in with no books or report cards or placement tests. Their class performances are very poor,” he said.
After being out of school for a number of months, children often need extra classes and sometimes psycho-social care to study well with other fellow students.
Another difficulty is that many of the families who fled have lost their sole means of livelihood and don’t have money to afford school fees.
Others no longer have the proper documentation to enrol. UNHCR estimates that 59 percent of displaced Cameroonians have lost essential documents.
Around 38 percent of the displaced children have been separated from their families and are now living with relatives, who can’t or don’t send them to school.
Many displaced children have to work just to survive.
Fifteen-year-old Soulemanu Abba, for example, told IRIN that “it was easy for me to go school when I was in Fotocol [his village] because my parents and friends were present and we had enough money to support my education. But since I came here, I now have to work to afford food for myself.”
Abba fled his home in October 2014 and now lives in Maroua where he works with his uncle selling gasoline.
It is a common story.
“I wish I could continue school because this is not a job I intended to support my life with,” said Mouktar Ismaila, 17, who drives a motorcycle taxi. “Many of us are school dropouts, some fleeing Boko Haram and others don’t just want school.”
Headmaster Aloa lamented: “Many students are skipping school to become men and it is rather unfortunate that most of them are missing opportunities of a lifetime to complete school and become important people in their communities.”
Education among refugees
In Minawao camp, the largest housing Nigerian refugees, there are only three primary schools with 21 classrooms to accommodate more than 6,600 primary school-aged children.
“Besides the fact that education is a basic human right for all children, it is especially important that refugee children receive schooling because it will create a sense of normalcy in them and will empower and expand their ability to turn their misfortune to opportunities,” said Isaac Luka, a lawyer and refugee representative.
But with no place to go, an estimated 40 percent of primary and secondary school-aged children spend their days milling around the camp, trying to make a living, authorities there say.
“The schools are overcrowded,” said Samuel Cameroun, an assistant camp manager. “In some classrooms there are over 200 children with two teachers who have to cope with children coming from very difficult environments. Aid agencies have been doing their bit by building classrooms, child-friendly environments and providing school supplies, but they are not enough given the growing needs.”
The government recently sent an additional 17 teachers to the camp and recruited 34 new teachers from among the refugee population, but there are still 150 pupils for each teacher.
John Duige, 61, a Nigerian refugee and volunteer primary school teacher in Minawao camp, told IRIN: “I have an obligation to help these children…They must have the opportunity now to study in Cameroon.”
It’s a challenging job: most of the refugee children did not attend school in Nigeria and few speak or understand English. With children speaking dozens of different dialects, finding a common language to teach in is almost impossible.
UNHCR and UNICEF have set up child-friendly tents which are managed by local NGOs and provide the children with various games and supplemental educational exercises.
“Education is a priority for most aid agencies, but the children need much more than just education to forget the trauma and images of atrocities in their minds,” Cameroun said. “They need more play areas, classrooms and psychosocial care through organised activities.”