Mouna Issahk is one of seven mothers at her secondary school in Chad. At age 20, she carries her baby girl across the hot sand of their refugee camp and shushes her in crowded classrooms.
Issahk grew up in the remote camp near the town of Iriba, where about 25,000 Sudanese people have lived in limbo since fleeing the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004. Her camp, Touloum, is one of 12 in eastern Chad.
It is a harsh, desert landscape where most girls marry as teenagers and spend a lifetime growing food and fetching water.
But a rare scheme that helps refugees attend Chadian universities is getting more people in school – especially girls and young women who have started to envisage a different future.
“Our husbands want us to stay home, but if you want to take good care of your children you have to be educated,” said Issahk, who dreams of becoming a doctor, bouncing her six-month-old on her knee in a sparse concrete school building.
The camp’s school system was transformed five years ago, when Chad turned its refugee schools – mostly makeshift classes held in tents – into accredited public institutions, meaning they benefit from state resources.
Chad hosts about 440,000 refugees and is the first country in West and Central Africa to have fully integrated them into its national education system – a step the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) hopes other states will take.
Refugee education is among the issues on the agenda for this month’s inaugural Global Refugee Forum, a two-day U.N. conference to showcase best practices.
“The goal now is to include refugees in national education systems right from the start,” said Charlotte Berquin, an education officer for the UNHCR in West and Central Africa.
Refugee camps were initially intended to be temporary settlements, a place of safety for people fleeing war with the assumption that they would eventually return home, she said.
But as conflicts in Africa become more protracted their role has changed.
Attending separate schools no longer makes sense for refugees displaced for 15 years, as the Sudanese are in Chad, and can hurt their chances of success in the host country, Berquin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Only one in four Chadian boys and half as many girls attend secondary school, according to U.N. data. Poverty, lack of access and child marriage contribute to the low rates.
Part of the problem in Iriba and the surrounding region is a lack of teachers, said government school inspector Ali Tom. Few Chadians coming out of teacher training want to be sent to the remote, difficult district, he said.
But the refugee camps have a different problem: a surplus of eager, educated youth who want jobs.
With the new education strategy, refugees can attend Chadian teacher training schools, become certified by the state and return to teach in the camps where they earn a small salary.
“When we arrived in 2004, I was one of only seven teachers who started teaching in the camp,” said Fathya Ali Souleymane, who was a teacher in Sudan before she fled to Chad and is now director of the primary school in Touloum camp.
“Now we have many teachers,” she said, proudly adding that some include students she taught in the camp over a decade ago.
Chad trained 635 refugee teachers between 2014 and 2018, according to UNHCR, mostly refugees from Sudan and Central African Republic who arrived in Chad with no qualifications.
The program has prioritized women, since female teachers tend to boost the number of girls in school, said Berquin.
In the three refugee camps in Iriba, women make up about 42% of primary and secondary school teachers and more girls go to school than boys at all levels.
Outside the camps, there are only three female teachers in all 93 schools of the Wadi Fira department, and boys outnumber girls, said state inspector Tom.
“To improve education, we must first involve women,” said Tom, attributing the differences between local schools and refugee schools to the sensitization done by aid agencies in the camps.
Since the schools in the refugee camps are now public, some Chadian students attend.
In most West African countries refugees are allowed to attend public schools, but in practice often miss out because they are not included in national plans which determine where schools, teachers and materials are needed, said the UNHCR.
Five years on, the program in Chad has seen success, but is not without challenges.
Making the refugee schools public meant switching them from a Sudanese to a Chadian curriculum, which some parents were not happy with, said school director Souleymane.
The refugees cannot afford university without a scholarship and there are not enough for all the qualified students, said Dominique Niava, the UNHCR’s education specialist in Iriba.
And despite awareness campaigns, the idea that school is not a worthwhile pursuit for girls remains widespread.
“Sending a girl to school is seen as a loss of time and resources,” said Yolande Tchounkeu, women’s protection and empowerment coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Chad.
“Communities need to see examples of women who finished their education and have jobs.”
In Chadian refugee camps, this is starting to happen. Women who have returned to Touloum camp with diplomas work mainly in the health center and in schools, and most girls interviewed said they wanted to be teachers or doctors.
But more options are needed, said Niava of the UNHCR, which is working to create openings for refugees at trade schools, engineering schools, and other kinds of institutions.
For many girls, the path from their mud-straw huts to university still feels vague, but the idea has been planted.
“We are not happy with our situation,” said Raouda, a 17-year-old sitting with three friends who all left school early to help their families with chores around the camp.
“We want to go to school.”
Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change.
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