By Islamane Abdou
Thousands of migrants, of various nationalities, living in Libya were forced to flee the violence and have sought refuge in Niger.
On this Wednesday morning, in the courtyard of the Katanga primary school in the town of Agadez, the thermometer registered 13° and there was a wind blowing dust along its path. But not that this discouraged the children from playing while they are waiting for the bell to ring for lessons to start.
Once in the classroom, the students sat three to a table, each wearing a mask, as required under the COVID-19 measures. In Year 5, in the class, when the teacher asked if the children understood the lesson, the child at the top of the class always put her hand up. This pupil was Wichah. She is 13 years old and of Sudanese nationality.
“We left our country because of the war. We went to Libya, and then we left Libya too because of the war,” she tells us. Wichah and her 4 brothers and sisters arrived in Niger in 2018 through their mother’s efforts.
“In Libya, their father was reported missing, so I decided to come with them to Niger because I was told it is more peaceful and so that they could go to school,” confides Leyla, who has become head of household by force of circumstance.
In 2018, thousands of migrants, of various nationalities, living in Libya were forced to flee the violence and arrived in Niger seeking asylum. Many of these children were left with the after-effects of the violence and had no prospect of attending school.
In 2020, in Agadez, with the financial support of several donors, including the European Union, the Italian Ministry of the Interior, UKaid and the French Committee for UNICEF, UNICEF in Niger launched a programme to strengthen the protection and education provided to refugee and asylum-seeking children.
"This project is a concrete expression of UNICEF's support for the Niger Government's decision to set up a single mechanism for managing the transit of asylum-seekers and refugees. It is also UNICEF's response to the call by the UNHCR to improve access for minors to services that guarantee their rights to education and protection," says UNICEF child protection specialist Fidèle Marcos Kikan.
After attending ‘bridging classes’, 95 such asylum-seeking children aged between 4 and 17 were able to enrol in Niger's formal education system. They are spread across five schools in the city of Agadez and attended classes alongside the children of the host community. “In my school, I have new Nigerien friends to study and play with. My best friend is Nigerian,” says Wichah with a smile.
When she is not in school, she and her other classmates from the refugee accommodation in which she lives attend games sessions at the Child Friendly Space under the supervision of social workers belonging to INTERSOS, the non-governmental organisation in charge of implementing the project.
“These sessions, which provide psychosocial support through recreational and socio-educational activities, allow us to help children forget what they have been through and also to identify those who need special support in order to provide suitable responses”, says Ahmed Mahfouz, who is in charge of this project at INTERSOS. “In Libya, there was a lot of gunfire and our mother would hide us in the house. But here, we even go out to play in other places,” says Wichah.
To date, nearly 400 refugee and asylum-seeking children have benefited from protection and education services through this project, and it does not stop there. To promote social cohesion and facilitate the reception and integration of refugee children, 94 children and teenagers from the host community in Agadez are being given vocational training, and the nearly 2,000 pupils from the five partner schools for refugees and asylum seekers have benefited from the construction or renovation of classrooms and the provision of school furniture and materials, including, of course, preventive measures to combat COVID-19.