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At a glance: Libya

Of bullets and blackboards: Libya’s war-weary children hope for return to the classroom

© UNICEF Libya/2011/Tidey
Children at play outside a UNICEF-supported children’s club in Benghazi, Libya.

By Christopher Tidey

BENGHAZI, Libya, 26 July 2011 – Aisha and Aya in Benghazi, Hassan in Al-Bayda and Haya from Nalut all tell me the same thing: They want to go back to school. In fact, virtually every child I speak with in Libya expresses hope for a return to the classroom as soon as possible.

Since the outbreak of conflict here five months ago, most of the country’s schools have closed, leaving the education of nearly 2 million children under the age of 18 in flux – and an academic year lost.

The prolonged school closures reflect the devastating toll wrought by armed conflict in Libya, with teachers turned soldiers, children kept indoors by parents wary of stray bullets and shelling, and a lack of available funds to pay for salaries and supplies. In some schools, children who once filled the corridors and playgrounds with laughter and excitement have been replaced by occupying military forces or displaced families seeking refuge.

From Brega to Benghazi, from Misrata to Tripoli, classrooms are shuttered or otherwise unavailable to the children for whom they were built.

‘Who knows what will happen?’

And more than just their education is at stake. In any humanitarian crisis, schools help to restore a sense of normalcy in the lives of children who have experienced traumatic events. They rebuild a protective environment by establishing normal routines in communities threatened by violence and war, providing a place for children to learn, play and simply be children.

© UNICEF Libya/2011/Tidey
A child’s drawing from early April 2011 in Benghazi depicts scenes of the Libyan conflict.

“I don’t like being out of school because I’m not learning anything and I can’t see my friends,” says Hassan, 11, who is living with his family at a centre for displaced people in Al-Bayda. “Because of the war, we can’t do the things we normally do.”

Mariam, 17, expresses deep concern that the conflict will jeopardize her chances of going to university. “I was a senior in high school when the fighting started, but I think I will have to repeat the entire year because of all the classes we missed,” she says. “I was hoping for a scholarship to study environmental science at college, but who knows what will happen now?”

Missed opportunities

In conversations with Libyan children, it becomes painfully clear just how much school means to their daily lives, future opportunities and ability to heal from the psychological wounds inflicted by ongoing conflict.

It is essential that all schools reopen in September to establish more stability in children’s lives and prevent further interruption of their educational development. UNICEF is working to ensure that this happens.

In the interim, we continue to engage with partners in supporting children’s clubs, which have been opened in about 130 schools in Benghazi to provide children with a variety of recreational activities. UNICEF will expand this programme to areas of the country currently in conflict as soon as access allows.

Drawing a different future

On a visit to a children’s club, I see first-hand how volunteer staff members are working to reverse the psychological damage done by the conflict. At the Mjed School, site of one of the first clubs to open in Libya, UNICEF and Save the Children have trained 38 teachers in providing psycho-social support and recreational activities to the 200 children who attend on a daily basis.

© UNICEF Libya/2011/Tidey
A more recent drawing by a child in Benghazi portrays sunrise along the Libyan coast.

One teacher uses children’s drawings to show me how their morale has steadily improved since the opening of the clubs in April.

“In the beginning, the children were drawing scenes of war and terrible violence,” he explains. “Now, they are creating pictures with positive images. Inside this place, they can forget what is going on in Libya.”

Impact on refugee children

Education is also a concern for children who have crossed Libya’s borders to escape the violence.

An estimated 70,000 Libyan refugees have fled into southern Tunisia from the Nafusa Mountains and other areas affected by conflict. UNICEF is supporting the Tunisian Ministry of Education’s efforts to open six educational and recreational centres at schools in Tataouine, Medenine and Gabes. An estimated 1,500 children ranging in age from 4 to 15 will benefit from these activities.

At the same time, UNICEF is working with Save the Children to provide education and recreation for children living in refugee camps near Ras Jdir, Tunisia. At the Shousha camp there, a handful of the 52 children registered for language, history and math classes tell me how important it is for them to keep learning.

“I don’t know where I will go from here, but I want to live somewhere that I can have peace and hope,” says Ayman, 16, a Somali who was living in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, when the conflict began.

“I am learning some things here at the camp,” adds Ayman, “but I need to get back into school so that I can make a life for myself one day.”



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