• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Ethiopia: South Sudanese refugees take the lead in educating their own

Making a Difference, 1 May 2014

© UNHCR/L.F.Godinho
South Sudanese refugees attend a science class at a primary school in Leitchuor Refugee Camp, in Ethiopia's Gambella regional state. In the near future, UNHCR will give hospital tents to Save the Children to improve the conditions of the students attending the school.

LEITCHUOR REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia, May 1 (UNHCR) Nyarial Gtaka, a 14-year-old refugee girl, concentrates on a blackboard lesson in English about "things that can affect climate" in her homeland of South Sudan.

The classroom in the biggest refugee camp for South Sudanese in Ethiopia has makeshift walls covered with plastic sheeting and the 50 pupils share faded science books. But for the teenager, who lives in Leitchuor Refugee Camp with her aunt, it's the ticket to a great future.

"I want to be a doctor, come back to my country and help my people," says Nyarial, one of 1,500 students who attend classes at the school in two shifts. There's a waiting list twice as long: some 3,000 refugees students hoping new classrooms will open so they can resume studies that were suspended when violence broke out in their country in mid-December last year.

What's really unusual about Leitchuor Primary School for now, teaching only Grades One to Four is that it is run by 17 teachers who are refugees themselves, chosen from among the 45,000 refugees who live in this camp.

"Our role here is to share our knowledge with our younger brothers and sisters," says Pal Wiw, the school's 27-year-old principal. He was forced to flee his village in South Sudan's Upper Nile state and walk six days with his three brothers and two sisters to find safety in Ethiopia.

Pal keeps the other teachers accountable, reviews their teaching plans and maintains discipline. He tells the children "to take education seriously," but is also planning to introduce football and netball to produce well-rounded youngsters. Balls and nets have just been delivered to the school.

He is not deterred by heavy rain and wind damage to the flimsy building, or the lack of exercise books. Only the continuing conflict in South Sudan causes his smile to falter. He'd like to go home, but knows that is impossible.

"I'm not feeling well because I had to leave my country," Pal says. "Even if I decided to come back I couldn't, because the fighting is going on there."

The UN refugee agency pays Save the Children to help implement this project. It is the only education activity so far in the refugee camps in Ethiopia's Gambella region, which currently host more than 95,000 South Sudanese refugees.

"We are still in the emergency phase, when we are concentrating on saving lives, providing protection, shelter, water, food and sanitation," says Alexander Kishara, UNHCR's emergency operation coordinator in Gambella. "Education is a priority for refugee children. It is very important for children to establish routines and to continue learning," he stresses.

"We are already looking for land for proper schools and as soon as we possibly can, we will establish more schools," adds Kishara. "We know it's important to get these children back into regular schools to build South Sudan's future generations."

At 19 years, William Chol is one of the one of the oldest pupils in the primary school, as his education had frequently been interrupted. "I need to finish my studies to make plans for my future. I would like to be an aircraft pilot or an engineer," says the young man, who left his mother and brother behind in the South Sudan capital, Juba, and came to the camp alone.

"I feel we are the ones that will change our country," William adds. His classmate Nyarial chimes in: "We cannot be like our parents. I want to learn and support my country."

By Luiz Fernando Godinho in Leitchuor Refugee Camp, Ethiopia




UNHCR country pages

South Sudan Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Donate now and help to provide emergency aid to tens of thousands of people fleeing South Sudan to escape violence.

Donate to this crisis

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Ahead of South Sudan's landmark January 9, 2011 referendum on independence, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese in the North packed their belongings and made the long trek south. UNHCR set up way stations at key points along the route to provide food and shelter to the travellers during their arduous journey. Several reports of rapes and attacks on travellers reinforced the need for these reception centres, where women, children and people living with disabilities can spend the night. UNHCR has made contingency plans in the event of mass displacement after the vote, including the stockpiling of shelter and basic provisions for up to 50,000 people.

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

South Sudan Crisis: One Year OnPlay video

South Sudan Crisis: One Year On

Uganda: A Father's TroublesPlay video

Uganda: A Father's Troubles

Forty-five-year-old Gabriel fled South Sudan with his wife and children to find safety in the UN compound in Bor. But, in April 2014, his wife was killed when an armed mob forced their way in, and now he is a single father to five children, seeking a better life in Uganda.
Ethiopia: Far From Home Play video

Ethiopia: Far From Home

Nyabuka Lam arrived in Pagak, Ethiopia in September after escaping armed men who shot her three children and husband back in her home country, South Sudan. After walking for 15 days to reach the safety of Pagak, she is now finally on a path to recovery.