UNHCR – ‘I saw first-hand how childhood education has deteriorated’

A South Sudanese refugee student attends a primary school in a refugee settlement in Uganda. © UNHCR/Jjumba Martin

Young people tell me again and again what prevents them from going to school: lack of materials (books and pens), long walks to school; They are hungry.

In Uganda’s Palabek refugee settlement, I saw firsthand how children’s education has deteriorated since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. After two years of school closures, only 44 percent of students in Palabec returned to school when it opened, according to Lazar Arasu, director of the Don Bosco Catholic organization. Most children in child-headed families are unable to return to school at all. Although Uganda’s policy of universal primary education provides free and good quality compulsory primary education for all children, there are still hidden costs of accessing education. Parents are forced to bear the cost of school supplies and uniforms, as well as examination fees. For many families, including those forcibly displaced, covering these costs is impossible.

Since its establishment in April 2017, the settlement has only one secondary school, although it is not in a strategic location. Many students have to leave their home at 5:00 in the morning and travel more than 10 kilometers to get there. Due to a lack of funding, food rations for the most vulnerable refugees have been cut by 30 to 60 percent in Uganda, leaving many students without breakfast and hungry at school until they return home at 5 p.m. There is often no light to read books or do homework at night. Some students cannot afford books or even pens. As a result, many perform poorly and many drop out of school.

As a refugee student who is passionate about community service, I have always volunteered as a community mobilizer, social worker and youth leader. I also participated in several trainings, including a basic video advocacy training, which later motivated me to advocate for the rights of my community. My dream was to go to university. I was very excited to receive the DAFI scholarship from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The scholarship, funded by the German and Danish governments, was based on my academic achievements, leadership potential and commitment to the community. After entering university, I wanted to support my fellow young refugees in the settlement. I founded an organization The leaders, which aims to reverse worsening school dropout rates and empower refugee children and youth to achieve their dreams. We currently support around 120 students with pens and books, maths and English lessons, as well as motivating them and providing them with information about higher education opportunities. UNHCR provided some funds to my organization.

Forcedly displaced people are too often at the center of international debates, while remaining on the sidelines. One thing that motivates me is knowing that the voices of the people most affected by global education policies and programs are chronically underrepresented at decision-making levels. Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations states that we must ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. It adds that by 2030 we must ensure that all girls and boys complete free, fair and quality primary and secondary education that delivers relevant and effective learning outcomes. According to Yasmin Sheriff, Education Director of Cannot Wait, “Educating girls, especially those left behind in crises, is critical to the plan to recover from COVID-19, to mitigate climate change and to ensure equal and prosperous societies “. For refugee children, especially girls, school is not only a place where they go to learn, but also provides structure and shelter from the harshness of life abroad. As a refugee I understand this. Indeed, refugees who have experienced the impact of schooling on their lives often have the best ideas for achieving the goal of quality education for all.

“Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children.”

UNHCR advocates for education systems that include all people, including those who have been forcibly displaced. The Protection Agenda and subsequent Plan of Action approved by the Executive Committee in October 2002 particularly emphasized the importance of “education as a tool for protection”. But the problem I see in the Palabek refugee settlement is unfortunately not an anomaly. Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children. For children who do have access to education, the quality is often very poor. The majority of the world’s refugees live in low- and middle-income countries whose education systems are already struggling.

According to UNHCR’s recent Education Report, primary school enrollment is just 68 percent globally and drops sharply to 37 percent in secondary education. Girls are particularly disadvantaged; in the East and the Horn of Africa, only five girls are enrolled for every 10 boys. Currently in Uganda, 53 percent of girls and boys of primary school age and 92 percent of secondary school age are out of school. Across the country, in Uganda, there are still sub-districts without a secondary school, even when refugees are accommodated, and only 18 secondary schools in the 12 refugee-receiving districts. I decided to reverse these trends.

Thousands of vulnerable young people in Palabek and around the world await our collective action so that they are not left behind and can achieve their dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, etc. Many, like me, want to become agents of positive change for themselves, their families, their communities and our world. I won’t give them away, I’ve been in their shoes.

Opira Bosco Okot is the founder of The Leads, a Uganda-based organization that strives to keep refugee children and youth in school. Participated in the UNHCR mentoring program for journalists, a project created to support refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless people who want to tell the important stories of today

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