How UNICEF Kyrgyzstan is assisting children affected by the conflict to return to a safe learning environment
The author Silje Vik Pedersen is Information and Reporting Officer at UNICEF Kyrgyzstan.
‘I used to like going to school. Now all our books and drawings are burnt. We have nothing left.’ Nouruz, 14, is sitting with his friends Hodjiakbar and Timur, both 11, in UNICEF’s Child Friendly Space in Shark, a community were over 300 houses were destroyed and where 168 families are still living in tents.
Close by lays Tolstoy elementary school, one of four school completely destroyed by fire. The school used to teach 840 students, including Nouruz, but there is little that resembles that now. Burnt books and mangled furniture are all that is left in the roofless classrooms.
Two months after the conflict and the tension is still felt in Osh city. Shops and businesses are still closed and the destroyed buildings are an imminent reminder of the violence that took place here.
‘I feel safe when I am here.’ Nouruz says and his friends nod in agreement. ‘But I am scared of returning to school, even though it is right next to where we live.’
Nouruz and his friends are not the only one who has doubts about returning to school. After the conflict, parents have expressed that they are very reluctant to send their children back to school, in fear of discrimination and lack of trust in the authorities.
‘I am worried for my daughter if she returns back to school.’ says Dano, 34, as she looks over at her daughter who is playing with the other children at the CFS. ‘I want her to go to school as it is important, but I will bring her to school every day and pick her up at the end of the day. I am scared that something will happen to her.’
A critical element of the initiative is to promote non-violence in and around learning spaces and schools, as well as provide the teachers with training on peace education, diversity- and tolerance issues. The main focus of the initiative will be in Osh and Jalal-Abad, however, it is important that the activities of the campaign also reach country-wide.
‘Schools all over the country need to show that they are a place for creativity, learning, friendship and tolerance and that the children are safe there.’ Chynara Kumenova, UNICEF’s Education Officer says. ‘This is important for the foundation for a peaceful resolution to the still latently conflict and to prevent future conflicts. It needs to be done through schools as they are one of the well recognised and respected social institutes.’
It is not just in the school the children need to feel safe, they also need to feel safe while travelling to and from school. Involving the local communities is therefore an important part of the ‘Welcome to School’ initiative and ensuring the children’s safety in and on the way to school will be done through a high visibility community mobilization project.
However, the education sector is heavily underfunded and with less than a month to the schools start, there is an urgent need for funds.
‘It is a great concern to us that education in emergencies does not get enough attention from donors’ Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Representative in Kyrgyzstan says. ‘Returning children to school as quickly as possible is one of the most valuable emergency interventions that can take place, as it is essential to children’s long-term opportunities and must not be interrupted. In addition, schools provide children with a sense of normalcy, which is crucial to their psychological well-being.’
Back at the CFS, the organisers have emptied all the boxes full of building blocks. Gulmira, 11, is eagerly stacking the colourful blocks on top of each other. ‘I feel safe when I come here.’ She says while collecting some more blocks. ‘And I hope I can go back to school and feel safe there as well.’