As refugees from South Sudan pour into Uganda, children are suffering from a lack of access to education and other basic needs. But one woman, a refugee herself, is leading efforts to ensure that children continue to learn.
ADJUMANI, UGANDA — It’s a sunny morning in the Ayilo refugee settlement, and children sing and dance at an assembly at an early childhood care and development center.
Their teacher, Halima Mustafa, a South Sudanese refugee, dances and cheers them on.
Later, the children will attend English classes and take clay-molding lessons. No matter what they’re doing, they can hardly take their eyes off their teacher.
Mustafa first volunteered as a caregiver at the center,which is run by Plan International, in January of 2014. Her efforts were recognized when she later became the lead teacher.
The center now has 487 children, she says.
“To me, school was the best way not only to teach these children math and English, but also love,” Mustafa says.
Uganda has accepted more than 140,000 refugees from South Sudan since a fresh wave of violence began in that country in July, according to UNCHR. Refugee settlements in Adjumani district have taken in most of those people, even while it continues to host refugees who arrived during previous bouts of fighting. In total, the district had 177,134 refugees at the end of August, 82 percent of them women and children, says Godfrey Byaruhanga, the settlement commander for Adjumani district.
More than 1 million South Sudanese have fled their country, and many others have been displaced within it, according to UNHCR. Uganda is host to about 380,000 of those refugees.
Access to education in refugee settlements is a challenge. Refugees are allowed to enroll in government schools close to their settlements, but preschool is not free in Uganda and many refugees cannot afford to pay for their children. Refugees depend on schools that aid organizations set up in the settlements. Plan International runs more than a dozen early childhood development centers in refugee settlements in Adjumani district. There are 17 settlements in the district, Ugandan officials say.
Mustafa, one of six teachers at the development center, says schooling helps the refugee children attain some normalcy and have hope.
“The impact of the war in [South] Sudan on children cannot be ignored,” she says. “Children as little as 4 years are traumatized. Most of their games involve playing with toy guns.”
Patricia Lindrio, GPJ Uganda
As much as Mustafa helps the children, the children also help her. She says the job has given her life some meaning.
Mustafa was living in an army barrack in South Sudan when war started there in December 2013. Her husband was a soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Mustafa was home with her four children, the youngest a 3-month-old infant. She fled with her children on a bus that was evacuating Ugandans from South Sudan.
She hasn’t heard from her husband since then.
“If he is alive, I pray to God to protect him because at the time of our separation we were on good terms,” she says. “It is war which separated us.”
Mustafa’s love for children has endeared her to her students.
“Halima has great passion for the children,” says Emmanuel Agweng, another teacher at the school. “They love her so much.”
Mustafa’s interaction with the children does not stop when lessons end. After class, she plays games, including soccer with a ball made of plastic bags. Many of the children say they want to be a teacher when they grow up.
Teaching refugee children involves keeping them engaged and showing them love, Mustafa says.
As Mustafa walks to her home in the settlement after work, she talks about her hopes and dreams for her country.
“I miss home,” she says. “South Sudan is my motherland but if it is still not safe, I am afraid to go back because of what my children and I have seen.”
Mustafa hopes that the children she teaches will return to South Sudan one day and help rebuild the country.
“This here is the future generation of South Sudan,” she says. “The journey to peace starts now.”
All interviews were in English.