At a small UNICEF-supported project on the western fringes of Khartoum, nine-year-old John Lam Kor is sat on a bench discussing his favourite subjects.
“English” he says, when asked what he enjoys studying the most. He then opens up his school rucksack, picks out a textbook and turns to a page dealing with words for various colours.
“Red, brown, green, blue,” he says, making his way through the exercise with a pointed finger. His pronunciation is faultless.
John appears small for his age, but apart from that he is like any other nine-year-old boy. He likes football, particularly Barcelona FC, and can reel off the names of superstars like Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo. He also has ambitions to become a pilot.
But many of the similarities end there. John lost both of his parents to the conflict engulfing South Sudan – a conflict which is now spilling over the border into Sudan itself.
Originally from Abyei, a disputed area which lies between the two countries, he later moved to live with his grandmother in Om Badda, a locality on the western edges of Khartoum which is home to thousands of internally displaced victims of conflict.
As a result of this upheaval, John was unable to enrol in any school. He had become an unwitting addition to one of Sudan’s more unfortunate statistics – the 2.6 million children aged six-13 who are now not enrolled in any schooling across the country.
However, as a result of a UNICEF-supported project in Om Badda, the young boy is receiving help in trying to turn his life around.
At one of the neighbourhood’s Alternative Learning Programme (ALP) centres – educational initiatives to help children who have fallen out of mainstream schooling – he has benefitted from teaching and learning materials which have been provided with the support of UNICEF Sudan donations.
The ALP scheme was designed to target children who have never attended school, have dropped out school, or have fallen so far behind that they cannot be mainstreamed into the normal education system without catching up on lessons they have lost.
Overseen by the Ministry of Education and the National Council for Literacy and Adult Education, it has been established using funds from a $20million donation from Educate a Child (EAC), a Qatari NGO which has given money to UNICEF Sudan.
The Doha-based organisation aims to reach millions of out-of-school children around the world and provide them with primary education.
The textbooks which John proudly carries around in his blue UNICEF rucksack have been specially designed using an accelerated version of the Sudanese curriculum to help out-of-school children catch up on their education.
Meanwhile volunteer teachers undergo a 10-day training course to help prepare them for leading the ALP program. UNICEF Sudan also tries to engage with the local community to help generate enthusiasm and support for the projects.
“There is no future without education,” says Shul Meben Bol, a 43-year-old community leader who has been a key figure in establishing the ALP scheme in Om Badda. “Even ordinary workers need some kind of education. If you have no education, you cannot succeed.”
There are now five UNICEF-supported ALP centres in Om Badda, with a total of 2,447 ALP programmes elsewhere across the country.
At John’s centre, the Dar el-Salaam school, there are around 250 other pupils aged between seven and 24-years-old. They are taught by eight teachers who have been trained with the help of UNICEF Sudan funding from EAC.
And there is no doubt the programme is changing lives for the better. Last year alone, 16 pupils from the Dar el-Salaam school were reintegrated into the mainstream state education system, according to Mr Bol.
Like many other schools involved in the ALP scheme, Dar el-Salaam was established by the local community before UNICEF Sudan became involved.
But during this time teachers had to buy textbooks in the local market, while many families were not convinced they should send their children to the school.
“We discovered that families were keeping their children at home,” said Santo Hal, a teacher at Dar el-Salaam. “They thought maybe that not many children would be going to the school.”
Mr Hal said that now locals can see the ALP program works, they are keen to send their sons and daughters. Retention of pupils has also improved.
Staff are now overseeing the construction of two classrooms and a teachers’ office using EAC funding – a development which will boost the school’s reputation even more.
But there are things which could make the learning environment even better, teachers say. Staff currently operate on a rotation system due to family commitments. With increased funding, they would be able to devote more time to the project by being paid for their work.
Pupil hunger is also an issue, with students often attending lessons on an empty stomach.
Locals are trying to find ways to generate their own income for Dar el-Salaam, but increased donor support would go a long way to helping allay their concerns – not least by supplying meals for the children.
One of those who might see the benefits is Apio, a 13-year-old girl who has studied at Dar el-Salaam for the past three years.
Also from the troubled Abyei province, she is another child whose right to an education has been torn apart by forces beyond her control.
Sitting in the shaded courtyard of Dar el-Salaam school, she says her favourite subject is mathematics and that she wants to be a trader when she grows up, or possibly a pharmacist.
“Education is your future,” she says.
UNICEF Sudan’s objective is to support the Sudan government’s target of reducing the number of out-of-school children by one million by the end of 2016.
Great successes have already been achieved. With continued donor support, thousands of other children like John and Apio can have their lives transformed by the basic right to an education.
UNICEF through EAC funding is currently constructing two classes and teachers office to improve learning environment.