By Priyanka Pruthi
NIMBA COUNTY, Liberia, 24 June 2011 – Forty-year old Philippe Cheugui used to teach history and geography at a school in Danane, a town in western Côte d’Ivoire. He was a successful teacher and public spokesperson, an inspiration to many.
Today, he finds himself seeking refuge under a tarpaulin shelter in Liberia’s Bahn camp. He watches his wife cook beside the tent with despair and relief in his eyes. He knows they are fortunate to have survived.
Caught in the crossfire
Philippe and his family, like a million others, were victims of the fierce political wrangling that gripped Côte d’Ivoire following last November’s presidential election. “I left Côte d’Ivoire as a result of the violence, extreme physical abuse and deaths that took place after the presidential elections,” he says. “Given that I was a teacher and someone who spoke about the problems facing our society publicly, I was targeted and beaten very severely.”
After spending several days hiding in the jungle, Philippe made his way across the border to Liberia. Aid agencies moved him and his family about 50 km further to the Bahn camp in eastern Liberia, one of the largest refugee camps for Ivorians in the country.
More than six months after violence erupted in Côte d’Ivoire, more than 4,000 people continue to seek refuge here. The majority, however, are living with Liberian families in remote, inaccessible villages scattered along the border. Estimates indicate that more than 140,000 refugees remain in Liberia.
Philippe is tired of the uncertainty of his situation, but an unexpected opportunity is keeping his spirits high. He is now the principal of a primary school for Ivorian refugees supported by UNICEF and its partners. Around 800 students attend classes from first to sixth grade. They are taught the same curriculum they followed back home by a team of 19 Ivorian teachers.
For UNICEF, the need to have educational facilities for children in times of crisis is a priority. “Education in emergency means that, on one side, we keep children in school for protection reasons so that they have a normal life and a structured routine and so that they are away from the street,” explains Francesca Bonomo, UNICEF Education in Emergency Coordinator, “but at the same time we want to ensure that there is quality learning taking place, and we do this through our supplies, through our books.”
It also means ensuring there is official certification for what the children have learnt during their stay in Liberia, she adds.
UNICEF has been training the Ivorian teachers at the camp to help children cope with the crisis. ‘Child-Friendly Spaces’ have been set up where teachers involve children in activities that ease their fears and concerns. Many of them witnessed their relatives being killed, some had close encounters with death and others got separated from their parents as they made their way to Liberia.
“We are using mostly qualified teachers, but we realize in our assessments that most of them are lacking the skills that they need to deal with children who are affected by this emergency, so we are actually training them to be able to improve the life skills of children,” says Ms. Bonomo. This includes training in psycho-social support and hygiene promotion.
UNICEF is also supporting early childhood development activities for children under the age of five in dedicated spaces similar to pre-schools, where little children get to play and find comfort in each other’s presence. The children might not be able to comprehend recent events, but they have absorbed images that will be etched in their memories for a long time to come.
But efforts to reach out to all the children in the camp are being hampered by a lack of resources. Despite introducing a morning shift at the school as well as an afternoon one in order to accommodate as many students as possible, a significant population is being left out. The need for a second school is urgent.
Battling the weather
With Liberia entering the rainy season, supporting even the most basic needs of the refugees is also turning out to be a herculean task. Food is already scarce and transporting supplies through forests and broken bridges will only get more difficult in the coming days. Agencies are racing against time to deliver supplies to remote areas and build reserves of food and essential commodities for the next six months.
With storms threatening the shelters and the dark clouds casting a shadow over the prospects of these refugees, aid workers warn that the rains might prove to be their biggest enemy yet.