Adjusting to life in a camp in the Niger is difficult, for Malian refugee children – but school provides a place to learn, play and forge friendships.
By Shushan Mebrahtu
MANGAIZE, Niger, 1 March 2013 – It is the first day of class for Malian refugee children at the primary school in Mangaize camp.
Adjusting to a new life in the camp, which stretches over the Sahara Desert, is not easy, particularly for children who have escaped the violence back home.
But, at this school, they are trying to return to normalcy. They are excited to learn, play and socialize with their friends.
School in the camp
Mangaize is one of three official camps among the six sites in the Niger hosting 50,000 Malians, more than 42 per cent of whom are school-age children.
UNICEF and its partner, NGO Plan International, have installed and furnished 11 tent classrooms and provided school supplies. In order to reduce language and culture barriers, new Malian teachers are trained in the Nigerien curriculum and in techniques of providing crash courses to cover missed school time.
The primary school opened five months ago has enrolled 837 students, a number that is increasing as new refugees continue to arrive.
“These children go to school because education is the basis of their future,” says Vice President of the Refugee Committee in Mangaize refugee camp Ag Bonjoly Aklinine.
School in the host community
A Nigerien middle school next to the refugee camp has opened its doors to Malian students living in the camp. UNICEF is helping the school to improve its capacity to welcome and integrate the students. New latrines have been constructed and a hand pump installed to meet the needs of all of the children – Malian refugee and Nigerien host, alike.
Adjusting to a new learning environment is a challenge for the Malian children, who are far from their friends and are trying to fit in to a new setting.
“On the first day at school, I felt I was left out. I did not know anyone; I was struggling to find my way around,” says Falmata Aghali, 14. Falmata and her grandmother fled conflict in Menaka, northern Mali, and are living in Mangaize camp. “My parents are in Bamako,” she continues. When I was alone, I thought about them and used to feel lonely, as I did not have any friends here.”
Falmata, who is in her second year of middle school, is slowly adjusting well, thanks to support from her new teachers and classmates.
“On the second day at school, two girls approached me and introduced themselves. They asked me where I came from, and we started chatting. Ever since then, they have become my close friends.” Falmata looks forward to the day when she will be reunited with her family in Mali. But, for now, she is safe here and “happy to be in school”.
Safe play areas
In addition to education, UNICEF and Plan International are supporting services to help distressed children recover from the trauma they experienced as they escaped the fighting.
There are four child-friendly spaces in the camp, which offer the children a place to play and get psychosocial support to cope with the stress they have experienced. Each day, trained volunteer animators organize activities including dancing, sports, games, drawing and culture awareness sessions.
Protection Officer of Plan International Abou Zeid talks about the benefits of one dancing session: “This imagination activity helps the children to stay connected to their culture even if they have moved far away. It also offers the children an opportunity for entertainment.”
Needs are dire
UNICEF is working with its partners to help Malian children realize their right to education and to their bright future. So far, more than 4,700 refugee children are enrolled in five primary schools in refugee camps and official sites hosting Malian refugees in the Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. But the needs are dire.
UNICEF and its partners in the Niger need US$3.32 million to respond fully and effectively to the growing humanitarian needs of Malian refugees.