Liberia and UNICEF support health and education for Ivorian refugee children
NIMBA COUNTY, Liberia, 17 January 2011 – The river is calm as Basile, 8, stands on its bank and casts his fishing line. He has come to this spot near the eastern border of Liberia every day for the last six weeks, a respite from the turmoil of his flight from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. And if he catches any fish, he knows that he and is three siblings will eat today.VIDEO: 14 January 2011 - UNICEF's Eva Gilliam reports on health and education interventions supported by UNICEF and the Liberian Government for Ivorian refugee children. Watch in RealPlayer -------------------------------
Basile is one of an estimated 13,000 Ivoirian children currently seeking refuge in Liberia, more than half of whom are under the age of five.
A total of at least 25,000 people have crossed into the country since elections held in Côte d’Ivoire at the end November and the political crisis that ensued. They are living in over-crowded houses in host communities, and often in schools. In many cases, up to five families – or 25 people – must share a single room.
Given the influx of refugees into these villages, food is scarce and health risks are high.
In response to the health threat, immunization teams from the Liberian Government are going from village to village to vaccinate children and mothers against polio and yellow fever, with support from UNICEF and other partners.
“The Ministry of Health does not know the vaccination status of the people back in Ivory Coast,” says Edward Gono, a vaccinator in Nimba County. “So they have to make sure they protect the child-bearing mothers and children against all diseases.”
For school-age refugee children, classes have been completely disrupted. Local schools here serve more often as shelters rather than learning spaces.
Fugence, 8, has been living in a two-room school with 50 others since arriving from Côte d’Ivoire. He is eager to attend classes, but in his small host village there are none to be had. Instead, he spends his days pumping water for the adults or working in the fields for a small portion of rice.
Like Fugence, many children have to work what they call ‘contracts’ for their daily ration. Some clean houses, but most are cutting and cleaning rice.
UNICEF is on the ground assessing the education needs of these school-age refugee children. In cooperation with teachers who are themselves refugees, classes are being set up to continue the Ivorian curriculum in Liberian schools after local school sessions end each day.
“We are creating a roster of all the children who should be in classes,” explains UNICEF Education Officer Matthew Flomo. “And soon we will be delivering education kits so that they have the tools they need to study.”
In the Nimba County village of Duoplay, 100 refugee children recently started attending classes in writing and mathematics. Starting a regular school and recreational routine will give these children a semblance of normal life – helping to reduce the trauma of their displacement.
“First they will get to interact socially and academically with one another,” says Mr. Flomo. “And we are also providing recreational kits so that they can participate in play and sport.”
Education as a lifeline
For these children, going back to school has become a lifeline.
Olivier, 15, thought his education was over when he fled his home village in Côte d’Ivoire. “At least here in Liberia today, UNICEF came to help us to return to class,” he says. “Truly, it makes me very happy.”
For thousands of Ivorian refugee children, a little goes a long way. With just a notebook and pen, or even a soccer ball, they can begin to hope for normal life.
By Eva Gilliam