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Education in refugee camp in Ethiopia improves lives of ex-child soldiers

© Save the Children

When South Sudan attained its independence in July 2011, after decades of devastating civil war, many hoped that to be a new beginning and a bright future for the children of the new country. But that new day never came; the hope didn’t last even for a couple of years. Since December 2013, civil war has disrupted the lives and education of hundreds of thousands of children. And there is no end in sight as last year’s peace agreement is under threat after renewed fighting.

With ‘Learning beyond borders’, the European Commission is supporting education for South Sudanese children and youths who live displaced on both sides of the border with Ethiopia. 

Berihun Mekonnen, Communication Coordinator, Save The Children Ethiopia @Savechildren_ET

Children and women have been the primary victims of the conflict in South Sudan. Many school-aged children, sometimes just 12 or 13 years old, have joined the conflict as child soldiers. 

Chol Deng*, now 17, was only 14 years old when he joined the fight to avenge the death of his elder brother and relatives. He stayed in the conflict for three months. “During these times I have seen a lot of things I can’t express in words; I have seen too many deaths that are horrible to remember,” Chol says.

But it was only when the war escalated and the adversary forces overwhelmed Chol and his friends that they abandoned the fight and escaped through the bushes and swamps to the Ethiopian border. He was stung by a snake on his way to the border.

The challenge for Chol didn’t stop after he joined his aunt in the Gambella refugee camp, in Ethiopia. The nightmares of the war at night and the daunting thoughts of returning to the ‘field’ during the day threatened his future again.

When Save the Children and its partners opened learning centres in the refugee camps, Chol registered and started to learn there. Focusing his attention on his education and the continuing support from his teachers helped him forget the past and focus on his future.

Teachers support students to recover from the devastating conflict by giving them life skills trainings besides the formal education they are attending.

I have now forgotten the idea of returning to the fight. School changed my life in a way that I didn’t expect. I want to continue my education and change my life for good,” – Chol.

With funding from the European Commission, Save the Children provides the necessary support to the school centres in the Gambella refugee camps,  some 800 kilometres away from the capital Addis Ababa. The ‘Learning beyond borders’ programme provides education to refugee and displaced children and youths in South Sudan and Ethiopia, on both sides of the border.

Eight early childhood and primary learning centres have been built in the camps and schools have enrolled more than 29 000 children. Besides providing all the necessary teaching materials, Save the Children is also providing trainings and incentives for volunteer teachers who are refugees themselves.

Capacity building and life skills trainings which include subjects such as teaching methodologies, class room management, cooperative learning and psycho-social training for teachers are making a difference in children’s lives, like they did for Chol. Teachers use their new skills to help children recover from the nightmares of war.

Another former child soldier, Abuk Labong*, 15, from the Upper Nile State, had been in the conflict for four months. He said his attention has slowly changed to his education after he started his education in the refugee camp in Gambella.

The teachers advise us to focus on our education and our future,” says Abuk. “I also spend some time playing with friends; we play different kinds of sports and we laugh a lot.

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© Save the Children

Save the Children works to ensure that every child receives good quality education and gains the skills and knowledge it needs to thrive. To this end the project also provides other supports to the school children. It has established ‘little libraries’ where children are able to access reference books and reading spaces in the schools.

Equal participation of boys and girls is also a core objective of the project. Adolescent girls are given a kit with sanitation materials such as sanitary pads, underwear and soap to help them follow their education without worries.

New permanent schools are now under construction with the aim of linking the emergency education to the national education system in the long run.

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*Names have been changed to protect identities