|© UNICEF Benin/2005/Froger|
|Togolese children at a refugee camp in Benin hold up their new school supplies.|
By Chantal Lorho
LOKOSSA REFUGEE CAMP, Benin, 31 May 2005 - In a dusty courtyard in the Lokossa refugee camp, a former palm tree plantation in southwest Benin, over 1000 children between the ages of four and 18 are about to go back to school. The humid air is ripe with anticipation, excitement and promise. The children wait patiently, each holding a UNICEF bag of school supplies. A few minutes later, they run into their new classrooms. The first step in restoring a sense of normalcy to these Togolese refugee children has begun.
On 26 April, violent demonstrations followed the announcement of the presidential election results in Togo, leading to an influx of Togolese refugees into Benin. Over 17,000 refugees have been registered to date, 6,000 of whom live in one of two camps situated in Comè and Agame/Lokossa. Many are not ready to return home, and fear reprisals, continued repression and nightly raids on their homes. Close to 50 per cent of the refugee population in Benin are children who, until now, have not been able to resume their studies.
“I already missed school for two months now, so I am very happy to resume my studies here today,” says Camille, an 18-year-old who escaped from his home in Lomé, the Togolese capital, the night his mother was kidnapped by armed men. “Some of my friends have been killed. I am alive and now back in school. It’s a great chance.”
|© UNICEF Benin/2005/Froger|
|Ten-year-old Anoh reads from a new notebook.|
The 14 temporary classrooms in the Lokossa refugee camp are equipped with UNICEF-provided teaching materials and School-in-a-Box kits. Students will sit on mats until benches are put in place. For the youngest preschool children it feels like Christmas, as they sing out loud and play with their new notebooks, slates, chalk and pencils. Most of the older children attended school in their hometown of Aneho, in southern Togo, before they were forced to flee.
Thirty four Togolese teachers, refugees themselves, will teach courses everyday. “It’s really a great pleasure for me to start teaching again,” explains Comlan, an English teacher. Due to the large number of students, a rotation system has been set up. Priority will be given to students like Camille who will take their primary and secondary school final exams at the end of this year. Before starting teaching at the camp, the teachers underwent training in psychosocial support in order to better serve the needs of their students.
Many parents are proud to see their children going back to school. “I did not expect this gift. We are very grateful to UNICEF to take care of our children. Our children represent our future; they can’t live without education,” says John, the president of the parents’ committee at the school. The committee plays an intermediary role between the school and the refugee community, encouraging parents to send their children to school and assisting students with their homework.
“Going back to school will allow them to regain a more structured life. Going to class and playing with their classmates will bring rhythm back into their life, and should help them to overcome the trauma they recently endured,” says Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF Representative in Benin. “School will give them a chance to rebuild their life and project themselves into the future.”
Aditi Menon-Broker contributed to this story.