The dilemma of schools that shelter DRC’s displaced families
Over 2,000 schools have been forced to close since January 2022 due to insecurity and hosting displaced people, depriving tens of thousands of children of their right to education.
“It was when we could hear the guns firing and the bombs that we fled our village to come here,” said mother Beatrice Buregeya from a classroom in the lakeside town of Minova, just over the provincial border from North Kivu.
“I took the children and we just started walking.”
When displaced families started streaming out of the hills, the authorities in the town had to think fast. Some families found shelter in the community, but space was limited. The town’s community hall was employed, and then as one of the few other public structures within the region, the school doors were opened.
Since the beginning of the year, 1.6 million people have been displaced by recent conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), expanding the country’s overall numbers of internally displaced persons to 6.3 million, almost all of whom are in the eastern provinces.
“It was back in April when we had a huge influx of families in this area displaced by fighting around Masisi,” said School Director Dunia Sukari at the EPP Umoja primary school in Minova.
“In discussion with the authorities, it was agreed that the schools could be used to give the shelter until a better solution was found.”
Teaching conditions at the school were already less than ideal with 600 children enrolled for six classrooms and teachers. With the education system now preparing for the new school year starting on 4 September, he has to squeeze in an extra 137 children enrolled from among the displaced children.
The presence of the displaced families within the school has already caused disruption.
“They would leave the classrooms for lessons during the day, but the place became dirty, and whenever it rained, everyone would run inside and we would have to suspend classes,” said Mr Sukari.
Now, with UNICEF and partner support, shelters have been built within the school yard, allowing families to move out of the classrooms before the start of the school year. The school is also being cleaned up, though it remains a challenge to completely restore the classrooms to their original condition before the crisis.
A 45-minute drive away along Lake Kivu, it is a similar story in the village of Kitembo.
At the local primary school, the classrooms here were not used to shelter displaced families, but hundreds of displaced persons are now living in the school grounds, making makeshift shelters from dry banana leaves and sticks.
The school shares a water point with these families, and will enrol around 200 displaced children for the new school year, even if the needs are far higher. UNICEF is advocating with the authorities for more places to be available. UNICEF has also built a temporary learning space near this school and at four other schools in the vicinity to act as additional classrooms, including accompanying toilet blocks.
In total in North Kivu province, 428 temporary learning spaces have been built this year by UNICEF and partners to provide education to displaced children. But funding for education is limited, and so far this year only 2 per cent of the funds required for education in UNICEF’s appeal have been pledged.
Since January 2022, over 2,000 schools – almost entirely in the eastern provinces of DRC, have been forced to close due to insecurity and hosting displaced people, depriving tens of thousands of children of their right to education. Children who are out of school not only miss out on learning, but also face higher risks of abuse, child labour and child marriage.
“There is so much more than needs to be done to respond to the needs of the more than 800,000 children displaced since the beginning of the year, but with timely investment we could reach most of these children,” said Helena Murseli, UNICEF DRC’s Chief of Education. “If we can keep education going for these children, we give DRC a better chance of building long-term future for its citizens, and avoid contributing to a lost generation.”
Beatrice packs her possessions to prepare her move to the shelters so that the classroom she stays in can be prepared for the new school year.
“It’s been good to be sheltered here, but we understand that the school needs their classrooms. I’m hoping that all my children can be enrolled in this school.”