Education is crucial for children affected by emergencies
By Mercy Kolok
JUBA, South Sudan, 29 May 2014 – It is a chilly, rainy Thursday morning in Juba. Despite the weather, people appear to be going about their activities as normal at the Mahad settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs). This collection of makeshift shelters, in an open patch of land close to the centre of the city, is currently home to over 2,500 IDPs, most of whom are women and children. Over the last five months they have fled from the conflict that has beset South Sudan; they have come mostly from Bor, Pibor and Malakal, in the central and northern parts of the country.
As we drive through the muddy spaces between these temporary homes, my attention is drawn by a group of children walking in the rain, holding hands and singing, apparently unaffected by the dull weather. They smile and wave at us. We are all heading to the same place – one of the UNICEF Child Friendly Spaces in the Mahad settlement, where UNICEF and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are about to make a special announcement.
When our car comes to a stop, over a hundred children, some as young as two years old, are already gathered, singing and dancing under the guidance of their teacher.
“I’m so happy to see my children looking cheerful again,” I overhear one of the mothers say.
“Me too, I’m glad they’re able to learn again,” added another.
But these mothers are not here only to see their children singing and dancing – some of them are still afraid to let their children out of their sight.
“There are several communities living in this settlement and as we’ve all come from the conflict, we never know what can happen; so I come with my children to make sure they’re safe,” the first mother tells me.
Despite an understanding by the IDP and host communities to live in harmony, many of the residents are not comfortable when their families are separated. A lot of the children at the Mahad settlement are still not allowed by their parents to go to school regularly.
Education, in fact, is one of the keys to giving traumatized children a sense of normality – and UNICEF and USAID have come to this child friendly space to announce a US$17 million dollar education in emergencies joint project that will benefit 150,000 children in the conflict-affected areas of South Sudan.
“This new partnership,” explains Linda Etim, USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa to an assembled group of teachers, parents and journalists, “gives girls, boys and youth a safe space in the midst of increased risks of trauma, injury, exploitation and abuse.”
With the generous support of USAID, UNICEF will be able to provide safe and protective temporary learning spaces, as well as teaching and learning materials. It will support accelerated learning for out-of-school adolescents and youth and will train teachers in life skills, peace-building and psychosocial support.
“In addition to the obvious need for continuing children’s education, education in emergencies actually saves lives by supporting children and adolescents with essential messages about how to maintain health in the crowded temporary shelters where they live,” UNICEF Representative in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch, tells the assembled audience, “It also helps to build social cohesion and to teach children about alternatives to violence in resolving conflict, as well as giving them a positive and constructive routine in the midst of the chaos and trauma of life in this devastating emergency.”
There are two UNICEF child friendly space tents at Mahad, as well as a temporary structure built with bamboo sticks. Some 620 children currently attend classes and sessions for preschoolers there.
“Some families are still reluctant about their children being away from their parents or care givers; they don’t like the children to be out of their sight,” says Katherine Smith, Country Representative for Terre des Hommes, which runs one of the programmes at the Mahad settlement, “So we are working hard with the community members to encourage parents to bring their children.”
And for some children, it is already making a difference. “I miss my home and my friends,” a ten year old girl tells me, “but I’m glad to be here because I feel safe and I can learn and play again.”
USAID and UNICEF launched the USAID-funded $17 million Emergency Education Project for War-Displaced Children in South Sudan on May 29 at the Mahad IDP settlement in Juba