In a refugee camp, getting more children in school and more schools for children
By Anthea Moore and Brahim Ould Isselmou
As the crisis in Mali carries on, refugee children in Mauritania need space to learn.
MBERA CAMP, Mauritania, 20 May 2013 – Although he is only 15, Malal Guisse has already had a hard journey. When crisis arose last year in his native Mali, he moved from his village of Léré, in Timbuktu Region, to the region of Segou in the south, where he lived with his aunt in Niono. He then moved across the border to the Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania.
In Mbera, Malal lives with his grandmother, Fatimata, who raised him after he lost his parents. Fatimata is in her 70s, weakened by age and illness. Her grandson is a source of hope in her life.
“He goes to school, and that fills me with joy!” she says.
Education and opportunity
Mauritania is the largest recipient of refugees fleeing the crisis in Mali. There are around 74,000 Malian refugees in Mbera camp, 58 per cent of them children under 18. With continued insecurity as well as a food crisis in northern Mali, many have been in Mbera for over a year.
“I am happy to go to school, because we have shoes and exercise books. We don’t need to buy pens. We don’t buy anything – we just come!” Malal says. “School has opened my mind with lessons so I can work.”
UNICEF and partners are providing formal schooling in the Malian curriculum for 6,294 primary school students and 249 secondary school students. Girls make up 49 per cent of primary school students, but only 22 per cent of secondary school students. However, many more girls than boys are attending the youth literacy programmes targeting 13- to 17-year-olds – 527 youths, 71 per cent of them girls, are taking advantage of the chance to ‘catch up’ by learning to read and write. In addition, preschool children are welcome in child-friendly spaces, where they benefit from recreational activities and psychosocial support.
Big achievements, big gaps
Moulaye Dahmane, a French teacher in the school, says, “UNICEF has been very helpful for children by providing all the school furniture, the guides and manuals for the teachers.”
Nonetheless, underfunding means that demand for educational resources continues to outstrip supply.
“So far, we have set up six schools which cater for only 7,000 children out of around 30,000 school-age children in the refugee camp,” says UNICEF Education Officer Taleb Bouya. “We need to do much more to offer education to 23,000 children through school creation, equipment, teacher recruitment and training.”
With additional funding, UNICEF plans to expand the number of schools, provide tables and benches and build semi-permanent school structures.
“Our main concern is shelter,” Malal’s teacher Mohamed El Hadi says. “We have temporary school shelters that cannot withstand the wind and the bad weather. We already have overcrowded classes with 70 to 80 pupils, and because of the lack of shelter we have to put classes together. It becomes impossible to work in those conditions.”
In partnership with Mauritania’s Ministry of Education, UNHCR, Intersos, Lutheran World Federation, local NGO ESD and the Mauritanian Red Crescent, UNICEF will expand its interventions to cover more children and add job training for youth who complete the literacy programme.
“Education is what remains after everything is gone,” says Hama Ould Baba, the school director. “If you lose everything, knowledge remains. The future of our community lies in education.”
Fatimata, too, knows that the key to her grandson’s future – and her own – lies in education. So far he has done well in school.
“If he succeeds at school, he will understand everything. If he knows nothing – I am old, I can’t do anything,” she says. “When he completes school, he will be able to work and take care of me.”