UN education investment scores high marks for Somali refugee students

News Stories, 1 November 2012

© UNHCR/N.Prokopchuk
Somali refugee student Hodan receives the English-Somali dictionary, a prize for her excellence in studies.

SHEDDER REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia, November 1 (UNHCR) Seventeen-year-old Hodan's eyes sparkle with joy as she clutches her new English-Somali dictionary a congratulatory gift from UNHCR on passing a national high school exam.

She's one of 35 teenage refugee girls in Shedder and Awbare camps, near Jijiga in north-east Ethiopia, who recently passed the national exam to make it into Grade 11. An impressive 85 per cent of Hodan's classmates passed, triumphing over hardships that usually hold girls back in her traditional Somali society and in the refugee camp she has called home for the last three years.

"I have to help my mother," says Hodan. "I spend most of my time cooking, taking care of my brothers and sisters, cleaning our place. There is no time to do my homework during the daytime." When she does have time to study after finishing her chores, "it is already dark and there is no electricity in the camp."

Undaunted, Hodan adds: "Sometimes I get up at two in the morning and light a candle to read my textbooks and write exercises."

Against odds like those, fewer than 20 per cent of teenage girls were attending schools in the three refugee camps in Jijiga that host more than 41,000 Somali refugees. That was before UNHCR launched a special programme at the beginning of this year aimed at getting more girls to attend and stay in school. Since then female attendance has soared to 32 per cent.

Even though education is free, families still struggle to pay for uniforms, books and supplies. If they have to make a choice, they educate their sons rather than their daughters.

With support from the United Nations Foundation, the UN refugee agency began putting more books into refugee camp school libraries and hiring women teachers as role models and mentors. Girls got their own space in the schools where they could spend their breaks and do schoolwork.

Even better bathrooms made a difference in boosting girls' attendance and classroom performance. In Shedder Camp, all 28 of the Grade 10 girls who sat for the national examination passed, and 75 out of the 76 male students.

Another important ingredient of success was convincing parents and the rest of the community of the importance of educating girls. "We want to encourage more girls to continue studies," says Agnes Mukantwali, head of the UNHCR sub-office in Jijiga.

Hodan, who fled the embattled Somali capital, Mogadishu, lives with her mother and five younger brothers and sisters. She says girls are often forced to drop out of school to get married at a tender age often because desperately poor parents need the dowry money the daughters attract.

"I am not yet married and hope to be able to complete the secondary school first," says Hodan.

Mukantwali agrees that girls' education is essential. "If educated, refugee girls can change the life of the entire community not only in the refugee camps, but also when they return to Somalia one day," she says. "These girls are the future of Somalia."

The education project is now giving solar lanterns to all boys and girls in both camps in Grade 4 and above. For Hodan, it's a chance to study, do homework and read even after the sun has gone down.

"My dream is to get a scholarship and go to university to study computer sciences," she says. "Can you imagine a Somali female information technologies specialist? I want to prove that it is possible. I can do it."

By Natalia Prokopchuk in Shedder Refugee Camp, Ethiopia

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The ongoing violence in Sudan's western Darfur region has uprooted two million Sudanese inside the country and driven some 230,000 more over the border into 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Although enrolment in the camp schools in Chad is high, attendance is inconsistent. A shortage of qualified teachers and lack of school supplies and furniture make it difficult to keep schools running. In addition, many children are overwhelmed by household chores, while others leave school to work for local Chadian families. Girls' attendance is less regular, especially after marriage, which usually occurs by the age of 12 or 13. For boys and young men, attending school decreases the possibility of recruitment by various armed groups operating in the area.

UNHCR and its partners continue to provide training and salaries for teachers in all 12 refugee camps, ensuring a quality education for refugee children. NGO partners maintain schools and supply uniforms to needy students. And UNICEF is providing books, note pads and stationary. In August 2007 UNHCR, UNICEF and Chad's Ministry of Education joined forces to access and improve the state of education for Sudanese uprooted by conflict in Darfur.

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UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

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Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

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