Creating opportunities from crisis
By Priyanka Pruthi
GRAND GEDEH, Liberia, 20 July – In a nation still recovering from a ruinous civil war – a place where many people have no access to electricity, safe water or health care – hundreds of communities have opened their doors to refugees from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.
Eight months after a political crisis erupted in that country, more than 150,000 Ivorians remain in Liberia. Most of them are being hosted by families in remote villages dotting the Liberia-Côte d’Ivoire border.
At the Barker C. Gaye public school in one border community, Zleh Town, Liberian students are sharing their playgrounds and their classrooms with Ivorian refugees like Sophie (not her real name), 13.
Displaced by violence
“My parents would have been proud to see me do so well in the mathematics class here,” says Sophie, who doesn’t know where her mother and father are or when she will see them again. “There has been no news from them. I haven’t heard from them in a long time,” she explains.
Sophie’s family members were amongst the hundreds of thousands displaced by the violence that followed presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire last December. They fled from their home in Abidjan, fearing for their lives. Sophie made it to the Liberian border with her sister, but the siblings got separated from their parents.
“The journey was very long,” she recalls. “We walked for an entire day. There was no water or food on the road. I was really afraid, it was so dark…. We couldn’t see anyone for miles.” she says.
Solace in books
As Sophie struggles to find her way in a foreign land, her only consolation lies in books and the company of her new friends.
Nearly 450 Ivorian children are studying along with her at the Barker C. Gaye school, which is supported by the Liberian Government. Regular academic programmes for Liberian students take place in the morning, and classes for Ivorian students are held in the afternoon. The special shift was organized by UNICEF along with its partner Plan International.
UNICEF has been advocating for the use of government school buildings to provide educational services for refugee children throughout Liberia. Recently, the Ministry of Education issued the regulation that allows public schools to hold ‘catch-up’ classes for Ivorian children in an effort to prevent them from missing a school year.
“We will make sure that accelerated learning programmes and catch-up classes and summer schools take place and target the biggest number of refugee children,” says UNICEF Liberia’s Education in Emergency Coordinator, Francesca Bonomo. “We will advocate the Government of Ivory Coast to ensure that the certification issued to the children in Liberia is accepted in Ivory Coast once students go back.”
Education as a lifeline
UNICEF has also acquired the Ivorian curriculum and distributed it to the major counties in Liberia. Qualified Ivorian teachers have been identified from amongst the refugees and trained in helping children cope with these difficult circumstances.
For thousands of children feeling lost in the aftermath of the conflict that uprooted them, school is proving to be a lifeline. The routine has provided them with a sense of familiarity and normalcy despite the disarray.
While the Ivorian children are slowly beginning to get comfortable in their new surroundings and finding the strength to believe that the worst might be over, the strain on the limited resources of their hosts is increasing. Liberia’s education infrastructure is too weak to accommodate the influx of refugees.
“There is an urgent need to provide the students with adequate protection,” says UNICEF Education Officer Matthew Flomo. “There is a lack of drinking water and sanitation facilities. There aren’t enough benches or supplies in classrooms, making them extremely overcrowded.”
‘What goes around…’
Even though the capacity of the public school in Zleh Town is being stretched beyond its limits, Liberian students and teachers say they’re willing to counteract the pressure with whatever it takes.
“They are not the first ones to be refugees,” says second-grade teacher Philomena Quiah. “We ourselves were refugees in Africa for so many years. We went to school there, we sent our children to school and achieved an education before we came back to our own country. So when this has happened to them, we need to embrace them.”
Her sentiment is echoed throughout the school’s campus. The stories of support and survival are astounding.
“There are five refugees living in my house. But there is no space for all of them, my mother, grandfather and sisters – so I sleep outside in the fields,” says one 18-year-old student. “It’s really hard for us. I’m the only one who is studying and also earning for my family. But we Liberians say, ‘What goes around shall come around.’ So what happened to them today, it may happen to us tomorrow. That’s why we need to take care of them.”