Going to school in a refugee camp

A chance to learn

Florine Bos
Girl smiles at camera
UNICEF/Florine Bos

14 August 2019

After a two hours’ drive on muddy tracks, a refugee camp looms in the distance. The white plastic sheets that cover the roofs of the South Sudanese refugees’ huts brightly reflect the sun. More than 46,000 men, women and children live in this camp. Especially women and children, as it is estimated that three quarters of the residents is female or below eighteen years of age. 

With so many children, education is one of the priorities for families and organisations alike. There are three basic schools scattered around the camp. Each grade in each school has more than 150 children. The girls and boys attend classes in a double shift system: half of them attend classes in the morning, the other half attends classes in the afternoon. Still, the classrooms are overcrowded, with often more than 75 children in one classroom.

A boy sitting on a brick wall summarises what is most needed. "A school uniform," he says. "So that I have proper clothes that I can wear to school and not the ones with holes that I am wearing now." The list of needed items also includes balls "for playing football with my friends." The children are now clutching balls made of folded cloths and ropes. Further, the school fees of 200 Sudanese pounds (approximately three US dollars) per year must be abolished according to the young man. 

These school fees prove already too much for some of the children. 12-year old Sara has never been too school, not in South Sudan and not here in the camp. She is the oldest girl in a family with six children (none of them are in school). Instead of spending her days in a classroom she helps her mother and grandmother with household chorus, like cooking and washing.

Children in refugee camp inSudan
UNICEF/Florine Bos
"It's like a house without a good foundation, the building will collapse," says teacher Johannes about the importance of education. "Despite all the shortcomings, I see that my students enjoy coming to school, at least they don't have to worry about the constant shooting anymore."

Finding your way back home

Despite the many challenges, some children thrive in school. 12-year old Esta and her friend Lisa enjoy English class, and they love meeting their friends in the school yard. "I like that when you have a problem, you can come to school, and there is always someone – a teacher or a friend – that can help you," explains Esta. 

In 2017, Esta fled the South Sudanese city Malakal with her mother and siblings. She sees many out-of-school children in the camp, many from her former hometown."If there is one thing I could tell them, I would say: come to school, if you know how to read and write you’ll not get lost. You can read the road signs and find your way back to Malakal without having to ask people."

While some boys and girls think the school is too full already, Esta believes that all children should have the chance to learn. :We will find space, maybe we can even build a few more classrooms," she says.

UNICEF provided the water, sanitation and education facilities when the camp was just established, and still supports the in-camp nutrition centre. Most services in the camp have been taken over by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. The health clinic is supported by MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières.