The Little Ambassador with Big Dreams
Students overcome COVID-19 related vulnerabilities and help schools reopen through the Safe Return to Learning programme.
It was a morning unlike any other in early March 2022 at Maradekaya II Elementary School. After being closed for 20 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school’s main gate was wide open once again, and students and teachers trickled in as parents chatted with each other next to street vendors outside. Although they were all wearing masks, the joy on their faces could not be contained as in-person learning resumed.
Abraham Pratama, 9, was among the students eagerly filing into their classrooms. He had been up since dawn that morning and was one of the first to arrive at school.
Although Abraham was happy to be back, he could still vividly remember the physical and verbal bullying he suffered from older peers in the past.
"Being bullied physically was hard. But mentally, it was even harder as the pain lasted longer,”
Despite his struggles, he had difficulty telling his parents and teachers and kept everything to himself.
“I did not know that Abraham was bullied at school, and I probably would have never known if his friends had not told me,” his mother Gusti Permata Sari said.
When his school transitioned to remote learning, Abraham thought the bullying would end. But he continued to receive hurtful comments on social media and online gaming platforms.
He also realised that remote learning was even more stressful and brought its own problems. “I felt like studying at home was harder to understand,” he recalled. “Sometimes, I was cranky because I did not know whom I should talk to or how to ask a question.”
Abraham is not alone, with many children his age having faced similar issues during the pandemic. According to a 2022 UNICEF study, 20-30 per cent of children in supported schools in Makassar City and Bone District in South Sulawesi Province reported experiencing mental health problems, increased emotional issues, and difficulty socialising during the pandemic.
With prolonged school closures impacting children’s mental health and well-being and schools facing the challenge of safely reopening amid the pandemic, UNICEF launched the Safe Return to Learning programme with support from Japan and partners in South Sulawesi and Papua Provinces. The objective of the programme is to enable students to safely return to school while addressing COVID-19 related learning, health, and psychosocial vulnerabilities.
As part of the programme, schools select students to become Kindness Agents and Hygiene Ambassadors to promote kindness, prevent bullying and help create a safe learning environment.
When Abraham’s teachers appointed him to be both a Kindness Agent and Hygiene Ambassador for his academic achievements and good attitude, he was thrilled. In his new role, he received several Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) sessions to help overcome stress and anxiety, as well as trainings on maintaining a clean and healthy lifestyle at school. Through this support, he learned how to better cope with bullying and collaborated with other Kindness Agents to launch an anti-bullying campaign at their school and on social media.
“I feel more relieved to go to school now as it has become a better place to study,” Abraham said while acknowledging the contributions from his fellow Kindness Agents. He has also become more open to sharing his feelings with his family, particularly his mother.
"I am grateful that Abraham is more open to talking about his thoughts and feelings with us,” said Mrs. Gusti. She hopes little by little, their family will be able to solve problems more quickly in the future.
Besides the interactive training for both teachers and students, a number of handwashing stations were installed around the school to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
“I used to worry about going back to school because of the virus,” Abraham said. “But when I was chosen as a Hygiene Ambassador, I learned the importance of wearing a mask, maintaining physical distance, washing hands with soap, and avoiding crowds and even inspired my schoolmates to do the same. Now that our school has plenty of hand washing stations, I could not feel safer and happier.”
Mr. Sudin, the school’s principal, explained that the Safe Return to Learning programme has supported both students and staff as they transition back to in-person learning.
“The Kindness Agents and Hygiene Ambassadors have helped ease our burden,” he said. “Not only have they inspired our students, but they have also helped our teachers, including me, who did not know how to wash hands properly.”
Despite his past struggles before and during the pandemic, Abraham has never felt more hopeful as he returns to his school.
“My family is proud of me for being a little ambassador. I wish that someday I could become the Ambassador of Indonesia so they can be even prouder,"
UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the Government of Japan for its support to the COVID-19 response in Indonesia.