‘If I am alive, I must have an education’

The refugee girl who crossed a border to go to school
The Guardian , March 5, 2015

Louise Tickle

When Grace fled South Sudan, she refused to give up on her dream to be a doctor. But with refugee numbers soaring and camps at breaking point around the world, millions of children like her simply don’t have a school to attend. So why won’t aid donors invest in their futures?

hen she ran for her life, Grace took her schoolbooks with her. It was December 2013, in the town of Bor in South Sudan, and Grace, 17, knew that she had to go. She ran fast, with hundreds of others including her 14-year-old sister, Anna, and their father, down to the river. Crossing it was their only means of escape from the anti-government rebels who were attacking their home. Small children were running too, clutching their parents’ hands, slipping in the dark, in desperate flight from the slaughter unfolding around them.

“You see someone killed in front of you, and then someone is killed behind you, and you and the others are still running,” Grace recalls, in a new film about refugee children in conflict zones, Kids in Camps, by the director Jezza Neumann. “People just run into the water … most of the children who don’t know how to swim just drowned because the river was very long. It can take 30 minutes, and if you don’t know how to swim you will not be able to cross. What you were thinking is: ‘Are you going to be alive, or are you going to be dead?’”

Once she had reached the relative safety of the Minkaman camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the west bank of the Nile, the problems Grace confronted were rather different. Instead of trying to run away, she was now on a search of her own: for an education. The nearby village, around which the camp has grown up, has a primary school for 300 pupils. With the sudden influx of fleeing families, its roll has swelled to more than 1,000. It is overcrowded and under-resourced, but Anna attends its classes and tells other children in the camp that they should, too. But there is no secondary school for Grace.

“It was so hard in the camp, just to wait and wait, hoping for changes and that there would be a high school,” she tells me down a crackling phone line from Kenya, where she now lives. “People in charge in the camp kept saying there might be a school, so I stayed there for eight months. And then it was September and there was no school. So it was a waste of my time.”

Nor does there appear to be any hope of an education for the two other South Sudanese children Neumann met while filming in a transit camp just across the border in Uganda. John and Scovia, both 14, are being “resettled” rather than accommodated long-term in a camp, according to the Ugandan government’s policy on refugees. Loaded on to trucks, driven for miles and then dumped on the side of the road in the middle of the bush, their families are given washing-up bowls, pots and pans and a machete with which to clear the head-high scrub. The prospect of settling here is ridiculously removed from the reality of these traumatised families’ previous lives.

These cases are all symptomatic of a broader issue. Without the chance of a decent education, these children know their future is slipping away. Their concerns are echoed by humanitarian NGOs: how to educate children displaced in emergencies is a problem that has never been more urgent. And yet the paltry sums that international donor governments are prepared to stump up to educate children who have been forced from their homes are starkly shaming: according to figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [pdf download], just 1% of all humanitarian donor money went to education in 2014.

School’s out: refugees in figures

  • 1%: The share of all humanitarian donor money worldwide that went towards education in 2014.
  • 57m: The number of children worldwide who are not in school. About half live in war zones.
  • 6m: The increase in number of refugees worldwide on last year. The total figure now stands at 51.2m.
  • 17: The average number of years a refugee spends in exile.
  • 40%: Typical share of UN’s target for educational campaigns that it successfully raises.

In the Ugandan transit camp, there’s no school, and no plan for a school. The children are not impressed: what emerges most strongly from Neumann’s film is their burning desire for an education. Likewise, months after she snatched them to take with her as she fled, Grace still cradles her schoolbooks, knowing that while international aid agencies will help her with clothes, food and shelter, her precious textbooks would never be replaced.

It is perhaps not surprising that aid agencies’ priorities tend towards steps that can produce more immediate, measurable results. And the more people there are in need of help, the smaller the share of aid resources available for education. Two million people in South Sudan have died and four million have been forced to flee since the world’s youngest country gained independence in 2011. Worldwide, half of the 57 million children out of school live in conflict-affected areas. And the number of children being displaced from their home region is increasing.

Figures published by the UN last June showed that there are now 51.2 million forcibly displaced people across the globe – six million up on the year before, and the first time since the second world war that this figure has exceeded 50 million. Half of all refugees are children – and once you’re a refugee, you’re likely to stay a refugee for a very long time. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees report last year, on average, a refugee spends 17 years of his or her life in exile. For a child, that’s their entire primary and secondary education gone.

The long-term ramifications are huge. Not being able to access education is an individual disaster for every affected child. But for fragile states struggling to establish enough stability and security to enable traumatised populations to return home and start to rebuild, millions of people going without education becomes a national catastrophe.

The vast exodus of Syrian children fleeing the conflict in their country during the past four years has highlighted the education crisis experienced by many millions of displaced children elsewhere, as well as highlighting the shocking inadequacy of the international community’s response.

“A lot of people think children can be out of school for a year and easily catch up,” says Claire Mason, who advises on education in emergencies for Save the Children. “Maybe in a developed nation with a strong education system that’s true, but for a child in a fragile country, it’s definitely not.”

Education in emergencies, she says, must be given far higher priority that it has been to date: “The international humanitarian response focuses on food, water, shelter and medical aid. But when we’re talking about children growing up in the most marginalised communities in the world, it’s vital to realise that education is also lifesaving.”

At the charity War Child, chief executive Rob Williams points out that the UN’s regular appeals for food aid receive an average of 80% of the sum being asked. Medical aid gets funded at a rate of around 58%. When there’s an appeal for education, the UN receives only 40%. This, he says, is “obviously nowhere near enough”.

Even where there’s a solid plan for providing children fleeing terrible violence with at least some degree of education, the funding lags behind the need. In Lebanon, which has absorbed almost 400,000 Syrian children into its towns and villages, the government has committed to run its schools on a “double-shift” system: local children for one half of the day, Syrian children for the other. Plainly, this total overhaul of a country’s national education system cannot happen for free – but only $100m of the $263m that’s needed to make it happen has been pledged by countries under far less pressure from the Syria crisis than Lebanon.

“We all know that humanitarian money prioritises food, water and shelter,” says Williams. “But food and water and shelter are easy. You can deliver it on a truck and put a donor logo on it. But you can’t stick your logo on a child’s forehead and say: ‘This child’s education is a result of my funding.’”

Worse still, the proportion of humanitarian aid dedicated to education is shrinking. There is clearly, says Williams, “something wrong with the humanitarian dollar”. Long-term development money – different from emergency humanitarian funding – doesn’t fund education in emergencies either, because donor governments like to fund projects they see as sustainable. When they look at refugee camps, the immediate thought is: “temporary”.

“You need a third kind of money that’s not humanitarian or development,” says Williams. “A global fund for education in insecure and fragile states is a really attractive idea.”

In the run-up to the Oslo education summit in July, Gordon Brown, the UN special envoy on education, is calling on governments to pledge money for something similar: he wants specific donor funding to ensure that agencies can do detailed preparedness planning so that they can swiftly move to offer high-quality education to children displaced by conflict and emergencies.

“Every time there is a crisis the UN has to plead, hat in hand, to fund education, which everyone now knows is a key part of the solution,” he says. “Half of the out-of-school children in the world are in fragile and conflict situations, and it is not acceptable for the international community to ignore this or assume it’s too difficult to sort. It is not too difficult.”

And if it’s not done, the risks, Brown says, are obvious. Research on Sierra Leone published in the American Journal of Political Science shows that children who had no education were nine times more likely to join rebel groups, and five times more likely to join government militia, compared to those who’d completed primary school and embarked on secondary.

“Out-of-school children are always at greater risk of violence, trafficking, recruitment into fighting, prostitution and other life-threatening, often criminal, activities,” Brown says. “Crucially, providing education in emergencies sustains progress. It is wholly unacceptable that children forced to flee their homes and schools because of conflict are then denied a future. A short-term crisis should not result in a complete loss of learning and opportunity for any child.”

At the International Rescue Committee in New York, Jennifer Sklar, senior technical adviser for education, expands on his point. “One of the most compelling reasons for providing quality education in refugee camps is that often recruitment to armed forces isn’t even forced, it’s voluntary,” she says. “In Chad or Ethiopia, for example, sometimes traumatised parents who’ve lost everything, and even children, welcome the prospect of joining up – they see their best hope of a future as fighting.”

Faced with such a scenario of despair, she says, good-quality education, offered early on, when children are initially displaced, “is the only way to offer families an alternative vision for how they might rebuild their lives”.

Williams has just returned from Jordan’s Zata’ari refugee camp, where 46,775 children aged 0-17 now live. He sounds frustrated and angry at what he found: “The biggest scandal regarding education right now is what’s happening in that camp, which has a very stable population. People are getting 100% of their food and water needs, but only half the children are enrolled in primary school,” he says. “Less than that number are turning up because they’re running classes of 90. So here’s a situation where it’s not dangerous, and not fluid, and yet education isn’t being sorted out.”

Why not?

Williams laughs. “Well, it’s money, isn’t it? The money’s not been forthcoming for education. I have the same conversation with the camp manager at roughly eight-month intervals and they keep saying, ‘Yes, there’s a problem, yes, we have plans to build more schools.’ But it’s not happening. And if they really, really thought it was worthwhile, they’d find a way.”

Grace is a young woman who will somehow find a way. Realising there was no hope of continuing her education as an IDP at the Minkaman camp, extraordinarily for a young girl in a conflict-riven area, she travelled alone to Kenya to see if any school there would take her on. One school said it would, but it was private, and Grace was told she’d have to pay. She had to make the perilous trip back to South Sudan to ask her father for the money.

Attacked and robbed in the bus she was traveling on, Grace finally made her way back to Kenya. Now she’s attending school. She doesn’t know how she’ll find the money to pay for next term, but she is determined that, somehow, she will. “To educate a girl is to educate a nation,” she says to Neumann, her face serious, her tone intense. “The more I am educated the more I will be able to do for my family and my community. I must have an education, unless I am dead. But if I am alive, I must have an education.”

Neumann, who has filmed in some of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world, had just finished editing Kids in Camps when we met to discuss the issues raised by the children whose lives he’s followed. “When I looked around the camps and saw so many children out of school I often wondered what the world had lost,” he says. “What bright minds and thoughts are now left without the chance to thrive? Who knows what these kids could achieve with a proper education? Maybe among all those children was the next person to discover a cure or invent a brilliant new device. When I see the opportunities that lie before my own kids, I can’t help but think about the huge loss of what might have been.”

There’s a World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 – an opportunity to ask exactly what the current system for addressing international emergencies is intended to achieve. “It has to be about more than just feeding people,” says Williams at War Child. “It needs to be about preserving the human potential of the populations that have been displaced.”

“My country is now in a very low place,” says Grace on the phone from her headmistress’s office. “If I can finish my school and six years for my degree to be a medical doctor, then I know I must go back to help people there. People must struggle for an education or we will not be able to go back to South Sudan to help it rebuild.”