Feature: Bringing early childhood development to refugee children
by Patrick Slavin
KIGEME, Rwanda, December 2012 – The handclapping gets louder and louder as the hundreds of onlookers cheer for their six young friends from the Democratic Republic of Congo who dance in front of the new education facilities.
Soon the children will be able to learn and play – reason enough to celebrate and fete at the hand-over ceremony in the Kigeme refugee camp in south-western Rwanda. The child dancers belong to group of some 3,500 children who live in this camp that is managed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Within the camp, UNICEF through Care International is running an early childhood education (ECD) programme and also leads on providing safe water and sanitation and child protection.
“By now, we are reaching almost every child in the camp aged six years and below with ECD,” says UNICEF Rwanda Representative Noala Skinner. “This is essential because these early years are the one opportunity of a lifetime, when indestructible cognitive and social foundations are laid.
“Many of these children here did not have the easiest journey to date. Through our ECD programme we are now giving them a chance to thrive and develop,” Skinner explains.
With funding from the Government of Brazil, UNICEF and its partners, including the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugees and CARE International, inaugurated new ECD centres that for now are set-up in tents for children aged four to six. There, the children can learn and play, and they receive healthy food. For children aged three and younger, locally trained volunteers run home-based ECD programmes. .
“All of this is a really good start, and we will build on the fantastic momentum. We will distribute ECD kits and provide additional training for the volunteers to further strengthen the interventions,” says the UNICEF Representative.
UNICEF ECD kits contain 37 different items which are designed to promote social interaction between the young children as well as with their caregivers. They include dominos, colouring pencils, construction blocks, hand puppets, puzzle blocks, and memory games, among others.
“We know from many similar situations that these educational kits are magnets for children,” says UNICEF Rwanda Education Specialist Henrich Rukundo Mutsinzi. To date, UNICEF has provided 60 such schools-in-a-box to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugees for the camp, enough educational material for 4,800 students for three months.
“We are really pleased with the support we have received from UNICEF,” says Ministry of Education ECD Expert Innocent Nsengiyumva. “We now hope we can move the home-based ECD out of the shelters and we will be able to provide more training to the volunteer teachers.”
At the hand-over ceremony, UNICEF also provided the Government with 5,000 portable solar powered radios to distribute at the camp. The yellow radios include built-in flashlights and a port to charge a cellphone.
“There are about 4,100 families in the camp. That means that every family and every shelter will receive a radio,” says UNICEF Rwanda Programme Communications Manager Nana Garbrah-Aido. “The radios will enable the refugees to listen to public health information and the education programmes broadcast by the local community radio station. The torch is important as there is limited electricity in the camp. We can also anticipate that some refugees will use the cellphone charger as a source to generate income.”
At the end of the visit, UNICEF’s Skinner reflected on the progress and said, “There is a lot behind us and a lot ahead of us.”