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Erasing evil with education as refugee kids go back to school

[Chad] Back to school for children from Darfur, but this time in a refugee camp. Iridimi camp, September 2004.
Back to school for children from Darfur, but this time in a refugee camp (Claire Soares/IRIN)

In a sand-spattered tent in the middle of the Chadian desert, Mahamout Ahmat Mahamout stands in front of a blackboard, trying to bring a semblance of normality into the lives of his pupils from Darfur, who have seen fathers and schoolmates slaughtered before their very eyes.

Biology is the lesson of the day for the class of 40 at the refugee camp, or more specifically how mothers feed their babies. And girls and boys alike sit cross-legged on the matting in their impromptu classroom and listen, entranced.

"School keeps them busy, although of course their minds still flit to the atrocities that they have witnessed," said Mahamout, one of several Sudanese teachers to seize the initiative and get classes up and running at the Iridimi camp.

"It’s important once they are able to go back home that they have the means and the skills to become leaders of the next generation," he told IRIN as he scrawled the next lesson onto the blackboard. "Who knows? There may be potential ministers and ambassadors among them."

CARE, the charity running this camp in eastern Chad, reckons there are about 4,500 children who should be in school. But with the formal education programme yet to swing into action, it admits that only half of those children are currently having lessons.

Some 800 pupils are lucky enough to learn in one of the five school tents erected at the centre of the camp. Another 1,400 cluster more informally for classes under trees and the rest wile away the hours either helping with chores or playing in the dirt.

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Darfuri children in a refugee camp in Chad
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] Aid workers hope education will help ease the trauma for Darfuri children in refugee camps in Chad. Iridimi camp, September 2004. ...
http://www.irinnews.org
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
No big new influx of Darfur refugees yet, despite fresh fighting
[Chad] Aid workers hope education will help ease the trauma for Darfuri children in refugee camps in Chad. Iridimi camp, September 2004. ...
Eager to learn, these refugee boys scribble furiously in exercise books

"We hope to have the tents to set up enough schools for all the pupils by the time the local kids in Chad go back to school in mid-October," explained Sylvain Nengoulya, who is in charge of the education programme for CARE.

The Darfur children are being taught the curriculum they would have been following in Sudan, had they not been forced to abandon their villages by the pro-government Janjawid militias who attacked their friends and neighbours and torched their schools.

Trauma a major obstacle

And indeed, the most fundamental problem facing both teachers and parents is trauma.

When UN Secretary General Kofi Annan flew in to Iridimi by helicopter several months ago, terrified children scarpered off to hide, thinking his aircraft was one of the Russian-built Antonov bombers that had wreaked such destruction on their villages on the other side of the border.

"Many of them have lived through the most frightening things. They have seen other children, their friends, dying in front of them," Nengoulya said. "There are images rolling round in their heads from Darfur that need banishing. We hope to erase some of the evil with education."

Eight-year-old Waheba Assadick was already focusing on her studies.

"It's good to be back in class because before I didn't really have anything to do, except look after the animals and fetch water," she said shyly.

But she had a few suggestions when it came to her new school. "There are no tables or chairs or books. And I miss my old school uniform," she told IRIN.

However, compared to her compatriots in camps further north, Waheba is relatively well-off. At the Oure Cassoni camp, which opened its doors just two months ago, aid agencies have not yet had time to set up a school programme.

"The refugees have organised themselves and are using the food hangars on days when there are no distributions," explained Julia Zajkowski of the International Rescue Committee, the U.S.-based charity which runs the camp.

No time to waste

Ameira Moussa Ali, a mother of five explained why the refugees had not wasted any time in taking matters into their own hands.

"If you do not educate your children, they are just like animals," she said.

[Chad] Twelve-year-old Salah is keen for school to restart so he can move closer to realising dream of becoming an airline pilot. Oure Cassoni refugee camp, eastern Chad, September 2004.

Children are among the 50,000 Chadians displaced
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] Twelve-year-old Salah is keen for school to restart so he can move closer to realising dream of becoming an airline pilot. Oure Cassoni refugee camp, eastern Chad, September 2004. ...
http://www.irinnews.org
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Displacement crisis looming in south east
[Chad] Twelve-year-old Salah is keen for school to restart so he can move closer to realising dream of becoming an airline pilot. Oure Cassoni refugee camp, eastern Chad, September 2004. ...
Twelve-year-old Salah dreams of training as a pilot but in the meantime he has a sideline making toys

Kicking his heels in the sand near one of the food distribution centres, 12-year-old Salah said he wanted to get back to proper school as quickly as possible so he could realise his dream of becoming an airline pilot.

"There's nothing to do at the moment," Salah moaned. "I play with my friends. We draw pictures in the sand of camels and horses. Or sometimes we make two circles and jump from one to the other."

But with time on his hands, Salah has discovered an entrepreneurial spirit. He has been gathering bits and pieces of metal and stone from around the camp and making toy cars to sell to the other kids.

"I charge five Sudanese pounds (less than half a US cent) per car and I've sold about six," he said proudly.

[Chad] Refugee children show off their home-made cars in Bredjing camp, eastern Chad. September 2004.

Sudanese children in a refugee camp in eastern Chad
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Chad] Refugee children show off their home-made cars in Bredjing camp, eastern Chad. September 2004. ...
http://www.irinnews.org
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
NGOs work to clear their name after child ‘trafficking’
[Chad] Refugee children show off their home-made cars in Bredjing camp, eastern Chad. September 2004. ...
Children at one refugee camp show off their home-made cars

As you pass through the camps all over eastern Chad, the inventiveness of the children is striking. Some have crafted kites from scraps of plastic and twigs, others have used the same materials to make go-karts and race each other round the camps.

Many are perfectly content scampering behind foreign aid workers and journalists and yelling the snippets of alien tongues they have picked up like "ok" and "ca va?" before collapsing into giggles.

But aid workers know that the novelty of a new home will wear off and schools need to be set up quickly.

"Schools are a definite issue. We are still in the grace period but eventually boredom will set in and you'll see more petty crime," IRC's Zajkowski said. "At the moment it doesn't seem to be causing problems or feel like a security issue but school are a priority because we do not know how long that will last."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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