By Manuel Moreno and Kyle O’Donoghue
DADAAB, Kenya, 9 September 2011 – For children around the world, the end of the school holidays usually comes with mixed feelings. That was surely the case as schools re-opened their doors this week in the Dadaab refugee camps in north-eastern Kenya.
The difference here is that many of the pupils are new arrivals who have travelled from Somalia with their families looking for safety from famine and violence. Most of them are not even familiar with formal schooling.
“We normally get children from Somalia who do not know what education is. They only know about fighting and conflict,” says Ahmed Hassan Mohammed, head teacher at the Illeys School in Dagahaley camp. “So many of them do not know what a school is,” he added. “They do not know what a teacher is.”
According to the latest estimates, 156,000 children of school age are now living in the Dadaab camps, but only a third of them are in school.
One of the newly arrived children, Noor Dawud, 15, came to Dadaab after a trek from Somalia with his cousin. Noor’s father died in the war in their home country, and he does not know where his mother is. Two months ago, his brother arrived and went to collect him from the cousin.
The brothers now live together in a little house made of a few branches tied together on the barren, windy plains.
Since his arrival, Noor has been determined to get an education. To that end, he enrolled in a UNICEF-supported accelerated learning programme at the Illeys School. The programme is designed to fast-track new arrivals into mainstream classrooms.
“For now, all I want to do is learn. Maybe in the future, I can become a teacher,” says Noor.
‘A smooth transition’
UNICEF Kenya’s Chief of Education and Young People, Suguru Mizunoya, underlines the importance of the preparation programme.
“In Somalia, only one third of children are attending school,” he explains, adding that “the difference in the language for the new arrivals is a challenge. So the accelerated learning initiative is really necessary for a smooth transition into the education system.”
Illeys is one of two schools in Dagahaley that are running accelerated learning through a partnership between CARE International and UNICEF. The school was established in 1992, when the first wave of refugees arrived in Dadaab, fleeing the civil war in Somalia. It was selected for the fast-track programme because it is the nearest school to the camp’s outskirts, where the vast majority of the new arrivals live.
Coping with enrolment
The Illeys School currently accommodates some 4,036 pupils and 58 teachers in just 25 classrooms. The student-teacher ratio is 168 to 1, and many children have to learn outside in the heat and dust. In preparation for the new term, UNICEF has provided basic education materials and erected tents to cope with the increasing enrolment.
One of Noor’s favourite teachers at the school is Hassad, who sees education as an important step in rebuilding the Somali refugees’ fractured nation.
“Some of [the children] are stressed, some of them are traumatized, others are discriminated against, others are lost children. So they are confused,” explains Hassad. Education will help them understand the important role that they and their peers can play in the future of Somali society, he adds.
The World Food Programme provides an after-school feeding programme to help the education process along in Dadaab, and the UN refugee agency covers the cost of the incentives that Hassad and other teachers receive on a weekly basis.
Schools in the refugee camps also provide vital opportunities to promote health and hygiene as part of an effort to avert disease outbreaks in the camps. In addition, they afford important protection for children amidst the mass population now filling Dadaab.
Now that the new term has opened, Noor has been able to join the regular classes. He is a fast learner.
“Children went through very difficult times to arrive here, and today is their first day of schools,” says UNICEF’s Mr. Mizunoya. “For me, today is a very good day, almost like a celebration. Here is the place where their new life starts.”