Never too late to learn

How catch-up classes help migrant teens in Burundi to succeed at school

Ruben Julian Hamburger
Girl writes in her notebook during remedial class
22 March 2022

Nyanza-Lac, Burundi – With her short hair, her plain uniform, and her colorful plastic slippers, Solange, 17, looks like a typical Burundian teen. But her story isn’t: Solange spent most of her childhood in displacement.

Solange was born in Mtabila, a refugee camp in northwestern Tanzania. This is where her mother and father, both Burundian, had found shelter from their war-torn homeland since 1993.

As Solange turned three and Burundi’s civil war came to an end, the family moved back to Burundi, in a tranquil village five kilometers north of Tanzania. But their respite was short-lived.

In 2015, instability and violence resurfaced. Solange’s parents feared a war was looming. They wanted better for their children. So, they left for Tanzania again. The family were among 420,000 Burundians who fled the country between 2015 and 2017.

“It happened at night,” says Solange, sitting on the edge of a bench inside a deserted classroom in Nyanza-Lac III Basic School.

Her voice, albeit quiet, covers the gleeful screams coming from the playground. “We left in silence. We walked in the dark, for fear that flashlights would give away our position to border guards.”

Smiling Solange stands up in classroom
Solange during a catch-up class in Kirundi at Nyanza-Lac III Basic School.

Once in Tanzania, the family progressed further over land, embarked on a hazardous boat trip along Lake Tanganyika, and stranded in a transit center. After many days of uncertainty, Solange and her family eventually arrived in Nyarugusu, one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in the world.

With its 1,200 hectares of deep-red land and its 150,000 residents, the camp felt to her like an immense and unfamiliar world of its own.

“Life was difficult”, recalls Solange. “And it became even more difficult over time.” Over the years, she says, food quantities decreased and hostility towards Burundians grew.

School became a vital part of her life, a haven where she could feel safe. But even there, challenges were numerous. “There were too many of us: more than a hundred pupils in a classroom,” she says.

“None of us had textbooks, except our teacher. So, it was very difficult for them to do their job properly. They’d focus on a few students only.”

Solange and her younger brother play in a courtyard
Solange and her younger brother playing Ikibariko, a Burundian variation of Hopscotch.

Since then, Solange and her family have returned to Burundi. In December 2020, they moved to Nyanza-Lac, less than 20 kilometers north of Tanzania.

But the five years spent in Nyarugusu camp have left their mark. Ever since her return, Solange has faced an uphill battle for education.

Like many migrant children, she lacked essential identity documents for school enrollment. Her parents had lost her birth certificate en route, and with it, the only proof of Solange’s nationality.

In 2021, only 49% of returnee children in Burundi were enrolled in school. Usually, cost is a significant barrier for many families, too poor to afford birth registration fees – between 3,000 to 5,000 BIF, or $2 to $3 dollars.

Since May 2021, thanks to a UNICEF-supported birth registration campaign and the financial contribution of the European Union, Solange, her two siblings, and over 6,200 children in Makamba have been given birth certificates. The campaign should reach another 14,000 children in 2022.

Without this help, Solange’s parents, who are very poor, wouldn’t have been able to afford their children’s birth certificates and complete their school applications. 

“I hope to have my own house one day, God willing,” says Annonciate, Solange’s mother, as she watches her children play in front of the small, three-room home the family rents for 50,000 BIF (about $25 dollars) a month, a significant part of their monthly income.

For the past two months, the family couldn’t afford the rent, she says as she struggles to hold back her tears.

Annonciate standing on her home's doorstep
Annonciate poses for a picture on her home's doorstep

Solange is now 17 and enrolled in grade 7. Many students in her class are younger, as she had to repeat a year.

Like many returnee children, Solange struggles adapting to Burundi’s educational system, particularly its languages of instruction.

“It’s hard for me to follow classes in Kirundi and in French. In Tanzania, I used to be taught in Kiswahili and English.”

To help migrant children return to school and succeed, UNICEF Burundi has set up catch-up classes in 139 schools in Makamba with support from the European Union. In total, 7,400 returnee children have attended remedial classes in French and Kirundi since the start of 2022.

“One day, after my studies, I’d like to become a doctor,” says Solange, beaming. A doctor she met in Nyarugusu inspired her.

“To succeed, I need to understand what I am taught at school. That's why I am so grateful for the catch-up classes. They help me progress so that I can one day make my dreams come true.”