Early childhood development centres help young children cope with refugee life

“The ECD centre is important. It wakes up the brains of our children to understand and learn well."

By David Ouma Balikowa
refugee children, play, south sudan, child friendly spaces, Uganda, Bidi bidi refugee settlement, bidibidi refugee settlement
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Balikoowa
14 July 2020

On a sunny Wednesday morning (5 February 2020) in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Yumbe District, northwestern Uganda, the playground at New Hope Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centre is a hive of activity.

Boisterous children from refugee families are running around and playing together with various toys and play equipment.

Unlike most ECD centres in Uganda that close during school holidays, New Hope is open on all days – like many of the other centres in the settlement.

The ECD centre is within walking distance of the huts of most of the 3- to 5-year-olds. Some walk in by themselves. Others like Josbin Madina are sometimes accompanied to the centre by their parents.

On the day war broke out in 2017 in his home village in Sanya County in South Sudan, Josbin’s father, Stephen Ladu, was away in Yei, the main town.

“The rebels were in the village. Government troops attacked them. People fled. My stepmother ran with the children to Uganda,” says Ladu.

After picking up his wife who was in Juba at the time war broke out, they were reunited with the children in Uganda and erected a family hut at Bidibidi.
He enrolled his youngest child (Josbin) into the baby class at New Hope and the other children into primary and secondary school. Josbin has just completed the middle class and will be moving to the top class in 2020.

“She is learning well. The first day she went to the centre, I talked to her. She told me school was good. Later she told me she could tell the first letters of the alphabet and also count up to 10,”

he recounted, his face beaming with pride.

Appreciating the importance of the ECD centre, Ladu was elected by the community after he offered to serve on Hope’s Centre Management Committee (CMC). 

“The ECD centre is important. It wakes up the brains of our children to understand and learn well. I realized my child had reached three years of age. I wanted to give her a foundation to learn more things instead of staying at home. People have always talked to us in campaigns to take our children to school,” he explains

At home, Ladu spends time with his daughter telling stories, reading the Bible, and teaching her how to read, count and play with locally made balls. She also plays easily with other children in the neighbourhood.

There are 484 children (230 boys and 254 girls) enrolled in New Hope, with 333 from refugee families and 151 Ugandans.

Besides offering a learning space for children under the age of six, ECD centres in the settlements provide some refugees with employment as caregivers.

Waiya Esther, 35, is among the lucky ones to get a job as a caregiver at Holy Dove, another centre in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.

“I called the coordinator and told him I was a caregiver back home in South Sudan from 2007 to 2016. They took me for training and I started work within days,” Esther explains. 

Plan International Uganda, with funding from UNICEF, has supported the training of caregivers through Ladong Primary Teachers College. In addition to training ECD centre management committees who in turn carry out parenting sessions, Plan also provides learning materials to the centres.

After the training, Esther started with the baby class in 2016, moved with the same children to the middle class and finished them off in top class in 2019.

Besides the monthly pay of USh 20,000, which helps her look after the family, Esther says her interaction with the children and their parents has helped to reduce stress.

She is part of a team of eight trained caregivers who carry out parenting sessions and home visits to make parents understand the importance of ECD learning and ask them to enroll their children.

“If a child is not learning well, we follow up with the family and the child at home and find out what the issues are. Parents appreciate the visits and always promise to engage more with their children,” says Esther. 

The ECD centres are, however, grappling with the challenge of providing porridge to the learners. The parents try their best to provide support for meals in the first and second terms but this wanes in the third term, which results in the children going hungry.