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Fleeing from Boko Haram, Nigerian refugee children find stability in education in Lake Chad
Outside the various classrooms at Espoir 1 school, in Dar es Salaam village, you can hear the lessons in French. But this is not an ordinary school in the Lake Chad basin— and these are not ordinary times. Many of the children here did not go to school in their own country, Nigeria, before they were uprooted and forced to flee the Boko Haram insurgency, crossing into Chad from Borno State.
“It’s a problem because before coming here, these people had never seen a school, especially a French-language school,” says Alain Baguel Dorsouma, the principal of Espoir 1 school. Espoir means ‘hope’ in French, and the head teacher supervises 912 students, from age five upwards.
In a chronically underdeveloped country such as Chad, even the locals do not necessarily have regular access to education. But the combined efforts of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have ensured that children in the area, no matter who they are or where they are from, receive an education.
The majority of the children are Nigerian refugees, says Dorsouma, but Dar es Salaam is not just a refugee camp, and the local Chadians attend too, as well as Chadians displaced by the violence. This could have been problematic. The Nigerians are Hausa speakers; the children in the area speak Kanembu and the island Chadians usually speak Buduma. There is no common language between the students.
The schools are funded by UNICEF and UNHCR, but must follow regular Chadian curriculum—which is taught in French and Chadian Arabic. When the school was set up the first classes had a Hausa speaker to help the Nigerian students understand the lessons, but now, everyone learns French, with some instruction in Chadian Arabic.
In one of the open classrooms, teacher Gassah Youdas commands attention as he leads his class of students revising French composition.
He teaches grammar, vocabulary and mathematics. “I teach them civics, too. Civic and moral education. In moral education, the students learn how to respect the rules,” he says.
The classrooms are full and the children at the school approach learning with vigour, as witnessed by a spirited rendition of the Chadian national anthem.
At the principal’s office, two boys enter. “The school is beautiful. I have learned many things, and I didn’t know French before. And now I can speak French!” says an enthusiastic Garba Haroun, in fluid French.
The 18-year-old, originally from Baga Kowa, Nigeria, says his favorite subject is French conjugation.
Haroun is sitting next to Illa Youssouf, an equally excited 15-year-old who is originally from Ngouboua, Chad. Boko Haram hit his island village in November 2015, killing five people and wounding 13, and causing thousands of displaced in the process.
Life has been hard for both boys, but for them school is a positive part of their day. They both laughed when asked if there were any problems between students due to their backgrounds.
“Problems between us? There’s no problem, we’re students,” says Illa.
“No one here at school says, ‘you’re refugees’, nor do they say, ‘you’re Chadians’. No one. And we’re friends,” he adds, smiling at his friend Garba.
“School is one of our successes here in the region,” says Kengo Wakyengo, UNHCR protection officer in Baga Sola. The refugee agency helps run two schools at Dar es Salaam, Espoir 1 and 2, which have a total of 2,000 students.
“Here, you not only have refugees, but you have internally displaced people, and you have host community children studying together,” he says, referring to the locals.
Part of its success can be attributed to the close liaison between the teachers and the parents. “Students understand the importance of school, and their parents bring them to school,” says Principal Dorsouma. “You know, it’s complicated, but now, I think it’s working.”
There have been additional challenges, including trying to get the school canteen up and running after budget cuts forced them to stop serving lunches for three months, another big incentive for the children to come to school.
Those who go to Koranic school in the morning always come in half an hour late, but Principal Dorsouma is working on that. “With time, things will be fine,” he says, explaining his job juggling the students’ timetable.
Boko Haram attacks a matter of ‘illiteracy’
The traditional leader at Dar es Salaam Nigerian refugee camp believes school, in addition to security, is essential to the camp. “We didn’t push the children to go to school,” says Bilama Ousman. But when we saw the difference between the kids who went to school and those who didn’t, we realised - now every child must go to school.”
There are even a few Hausa volunteers at the school. Malam Sani, a 55-year-old refugee from Kowkeri, Nigeria, near the Niger border, has helped Hausa-speaking students settle in because he is also a French speaker.
“Education is the most important thing in life,” says Sani, whose parents sent him to French school as a child. He regularly translates documents for other refugees in the camp, encouraging the children to attend school.
“If I didn’t attend school, no one would come and say, Malam Sani, come and be a translator. I am not bigger than anybody, I am not wealthy, but it’s because I have a few words in French,” says Sani. “This is the clear example for everyone to know that if you send your child to school he will be brighter in no time,” he adds.
The refugees fled hardline group Boko Haram, whose name is usually translated from Hausa as meaning “Western education is forbidden”. Yet the children of those who fled from the violence are now going to school - an issue not lost on education advocate Sani.
“What’s happening now, it’s just because of their lack of education—carrying weapons, killing people, thinking that is good,” says Sani. “I know this is a matter of illiteracy.”
For friends Illa and Garba, school has given them a purpose. Garba would like to become a teacher, and eventually a school principal. Illa would like to be a minister, or public official, or even a doctor. “I want to help the people, and vaccinate them against polio, so they won’t get sick,” he says.
For Wakyengo, the UN refugee agency’s protection officer, he could not wish for more.
“One day, if the children have a chance, and I hope so, to go back home, they can contribute to the development of their country, and this can really boost their dignity to be respectable in their society,” he says.