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A crisis with differences: Education dilemmas in Dili

Dom Bosco primary school, Baucau town, Timor-Leste
© UNICEF/ETMR00007/Ruiz
IDP children singing songs at their Don Bosco primary school

By Tani Ruiz

September 2006 - Violence. Vast numbers of displaced.  A human emergency. While Dili is suffering some of the usual shocks as a result of conflict, the humanitarian crisis in Timor-Leste’s capital is, in fact, quite different from the mould.

Most of the displaced still have homes. Many families living in camps return to their houses on a regular basis, at least for a few hours during the day. The IDPs are short of food and other basics, but municipal services such as water and electricity supplies were never disrupted.

Dili’s distinct scenario is posing some unique challenges for education.  Schooling received a first jolt at the end of April, when the unrest began. After an escalation of violence in late May, education came to a virtual standstill.  Some schools were looted during the weeks of trouble, others were turned into IDP camps. Droves of teachers decamped to outlying districts to wait out the storm. Thousands of pupils fled Dili with their families. It is estimated that around 30,000 children enrolled in primary school in Dili have been affected in this crisis. 

As a tenuous peace has returned to the capital, some educational facilities have now re-opened with a sprinkling of teachers.  Meanwhile, some of the larger camps for displaced people have started, or are planning to embark on, learning activities for primary school-aged children.  In this situation, what are the priorities? Do you promote education at the camps, or do you push for a return to schools. Or do you go for both?

“In education, we’re confronted with some very particular dilemmas,” said Elke  Krause-Hannak, UNICEF Timor-Leste Project Officer, Education. “We all want a return to regular schooling as soon as possible. At the same time, the reality is that this will not be possible as long as the camps are full.  We need to find a balance between helping the schools get back on their feet, and supporting learning in the IDP camps.”

The government and its partners, including UNICEF, are first tackling the need for precise information. There are 67 primary schools in Dili, but it is not yet known how many are functioning nor how many teachers are in town and who would be willing to resume work.  This week, an assessment is underway to find out, and, in addition, assess which facilities have been damaged, looted, and what supplies are needed to restart classes.  Once this information has been calibrated, there will be a clearer picture of what the educational landscape looks like.

UNICEF Timor-Leste has 162 school-in-a-box kits on standby, ready to go out.  But, says Krause-Hannak, it only makes sense to distribute them once the needs are known, a strategy for schooling is in place, and teachers have been given some guidance on how to use the contents.

Amid a general breakdown in formal education, some very committed teachers are finding their own solutions to the quagmire.

Don Bosco IDP camp, Dili, Timor-Leste, June 2006
© UNICEF/ETMR00051/Ruiz
Mateus Maia, a primary school teacher living in the Don Bosco IDP camp who is helping set up learning sessions for primary school pupils

Mateus Maia is a primary school teacher living at Don Bosco camp.  Two weeks ago, he started teaching 9-11 year-olds at Sao Pedro, a Catholic secondary school five minutes from the camp. Some of the pupils in his class are IDPs from Don Bosco (assembled by Maia and other teachers living there), and some come from primary schools which are closed. In the afternoons, Maia sometimes coaches secondary school students. The school, unscathed and attuned to studying, is a reassuring sight.

At Don Bosco, Maia and his colleagues are also trying to organize sessions for children in the first three years of primary school (6-8 years).  The only space they can locate are patches of ground under a few mulberry trees.
  
“We’ve had several meetings with the camp manager, and decided this is the best plan for the younger pupils,” he says. “Our goal is to help kids get back on track, playing and learning.” Supplies like paper, drawing books, and pencils are in short supply but some organizations, including UNICEF, have handed out stationary and other items.

 UNICEF/ETMR00060/Ruiz
Older students crowd into newly formed classes

Classes in school for the older students, camp learning for the younger ones: this is a practical modus operandi for Maia, who believes it is too soon for a wholesale return to formal education. “We want to do our best, but going back to normal schooling is not possible now for safety and security reasons.” Ensuring safety, in his view, would mean posting guards at the schools, “but the Ministry of Education has given us no guarantees about security if the schools open again,”  he says. Maia hopes to return to his own school (a 10-minute walk from Don Bosco), where he is a veteran of 16 years, but for now, it lies shuttered and deserted.

One pending issue of great importance is the year-end exams, normally held in early July.  The Ministry of Education has given the go-ahead for exams to schools in the 12 districts outside of Dili – for the most part operating normally, though some are having to cope with teems of displaced children.  But no decision has been made for schools in the capital.  The exams determine who advances to the next level, and who has to redo a year.  The absence of exams this year would create great confusion, if not utter chaos.

The uncertainty is not dashing the hopes of Irene Silvina Morato, headmistress of Escola Primaria Numero Uno (Number One Primary School) in the Farol area of Dili. “I hope the students can come back quickly because they do need to prepare for exams,” she says.

This particular primary school reopened on 12 June. Out of a staff of 16 teachers, seven (including Morato) have returned. The headmistress estimates that less than one third of the normal roster of 679 pupils are present. Once again, the student profile is mixed: some regulars, some IDPs, some recruits from schools that are shut.

“Although the situation is not back to normal, it’s our job to convince children to come back to school,” Morato says. “Otherwise they will miss too much.”  

The disruption to education is an unsettling setback in a country where the challenges were big to begin with.  One child in four in Timor-Leste does not enroll in primary school and literacy rates are low compared with other countries in the region.  But efforts to rebuild a system based on a ‘learning friendly’ environment were starting to show real gains.  The government, with the help of UNICEF and other partners, has come out with a brand new primary school curriculum. The year one curriculum has already been phased in and year 2 is due to be rolled out in September.    

Even if the political conflict is quickly resolved, education will take time to normalize. And even when all children do go back to school, it will not be business as usual.

“Children who have lived through a crisis like this will need to have some psychosocial activities in school that allow them to express their feelings, so that healing can take place,” said UNICEF’s Krause-Hannak.  Psychological assistance is a subject that the working group on education (led by the government) is discussing

“Children have been under so much pressure in this conflict. They need special help,” says primary school teacher Maia, a father of three.  “It will take them some time to get back to where they were before.”

 

 
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