By Anthea Moore
M’BERA, Mauritania, 23 May 2012 – Conflict in Mali has displaced hundreds of thousands. Around 64,000 Malian refugees, including 39,000 children, are now living in a refugee camp at M’Bera in the far south-eastern corner of Mauritania. The camp is now the largest settlement in the district, three times larger than the capital Bassikunou.
Life-saving aid continues to be provided by the Government of Mauritania, United Nations agencies and partner NGOs. The relief is now being diversified and made more comprehensive, covering essential health, education and other services for those in need.
Immunization campaigns, led by the Ministry of Health, with support from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, are currently underway, part of efforts to prevent the outbreak of diseases in the congested camp. Schools are also being established, restoring a much-needed sense of normalcy for the refugee children. The schools also offer a protective environment and a platform for disseminating life-saving messages about hygiene and sanitation to children.
Teghala Wellet Mohamed and her three children, aged 4, 3 and 1, were some of the first people to arrive in M’bera.
Near their tent, an official ceremony was organized to welcome the Minister of the Interior and Decentralization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who were launching a polio vaccination campaign. This effort follows a measles vaccination campaign that was carried out in March. All of Ms. Mohamed’s children received the oral polio vaccine as part of this campaign.
Ms. Mohamed knows that children must receive a number of vaccinations before their first birthday. Though she finds it difficult to name the diseases targeted by the vaccinations, she is committed to ensuring her children are all protected.
“During vaccination campaigns in Mali, there was always a big crowd as people were encouraged to bring their children by the village chiefs,” she said. “Here, we have been given more information about polio and why our children need to be vaccinated.”
Those most at risk of being unvaccinated when they arrive in the camp are children from nomadic communities; their mobility presents a significant challenge to the delivery of health care and other services.
An opportunity to learn
UNICEF has been working with the governments of Mauritania and Mali to establish schools in the camps. The first school was opened for 480 students in early April. There are now 2,221 students (1,164 boys and 1,057 girls) attending classes, and more are waiting to be enrolled. UNICEF is continuing to deliver more school tents and supplies, including school-in-a-box kits, to meet the growing demand.
The classes, conducted by volunteer teachers from the refugee community, will allow many children to finish an academic year that was disrupted by their flight from Mali. And for other children, these schools represent a first opportunity to gain an education.
Mahmoud is 10 years old and has never been to school. Living in a nomadic community with his mother and younger siblings, he has been considered the ‘man’ of his family and has had to grow up fast. He has adapted quickly to life in the camp and has taken on the responsibility of collecting water twice a day for the family. Recently, he waited in line from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. to use the water fountain.
Mahmoud used to be sad that he could not talk about school with other children his age. But now, thanks to the newly built school, he finally has a chance to receive a basic education.