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South Sudan: “Welcome to our school”

Written by Oliver Filler, outgoing Field Manager, emergency response team in South Sudan.

As a humanitarian you tend to spend your life with too little time; to plan, to implement, to monitor (and often too little time to wash, eat or sleep).

It’s the nature of things in an emergency. Everything needs to be done ASAP and just when you feel like you’re getting your breath back you’re onto the next problem.

When I leave a humanitarian response, normally shattered and closely resembling Gollum from Lord of the Rings, I often look back with a tinge of regret and think “I wish I had done this instead of that”. But sometimes you come across something very special; where, through hard work, a strong focus on quality and a fair amount of luck, you get a response where you look back and think: “I wouldn’t have changed a thing”.

Welcome to Nyiel Refugee Primary School

Here 400 students are attending primary classes and 180 are coming to our Early Childhood Development Centre. Any visitor to the school will be spontaneously regaled with the school song developed by the pupils: “Welcome to Nyiel, welcome to our school, as you can see, we are happy.”

A word of warning: the energy of these children is contagious and if, like me, your dancing resembles a salmon swimming upstream, you’ll need to make sure there are no cameras around as you’ll inevitably want to join in.

Most of the children made the perilous journey to the camp in Unity State to try escape the insecurity that’s blighted lives in this area for decades.

“It’s a joy to see these children so happy,” says Andrew Tia the Deputy Headmaster of the school, “they have had a hard life”.

A new community

When I first visited the camp in February 2012, the newly arrived children were thin and dejected.

The refugee community was new, many families forced together through a shared misfortune and suffering, settling in an area different to their own and living among a host community who viewed them with some suspicion.

Save the Children built and runs the primary school and early childhood development activities in the camp.

“When the school was developed so was the community,” said Andrew, “it gave a direction and a purpose to the children…and we started to build a sense of pride and hope in our community”.

The school is open to both the refugee and host communities, helping to strengthen ties between the two and encourage acceptance.

Save the Children recruited and trained new teachers, and encouraged the local community to take an increased interest in the education of their children. Because of the instability of the area, few adults have attended any form of schooling.

We established a Parent Teacher Association to discuss challenges, successes and future plans for the school, empowering the community to make their own decisions.

A happy school

Happy teachers make happy children, and happy children make a happy school. That’s why Save the Children supports the volunteer teachers in Nyiel as much as possible:

“The school has stationary, exercise books, textbooks and furniture. But most importantly for me you have trained us to be better teachers and through that we are making a better school,” said Andrew Buga,a teacher from the host community.

We’ve tried to make the learning space comfortable and child-friendly – a difficult task when classrooms often consist of wooden poles, plastic sheeting and corrugated iron sheets. We lined the inside with cheap hardboard, painted it white and then encouraged children to paint pictures.

“When children who aren’t in school see pupils walking around with their school bags they tell their parents they want to go to school too. We have had a lot of children joining the school that way,” said teacher Meshak Chicko.

Books and hula hoops

It’s very difficult to get books in South Sudan, so we established a small library with books from the UK.  The library’s popularity is exceeded only by our distribution of hula hoops.

Beyond this, I believe the key to our success has been the stress on community acceptance. We have a very visible presence during school hours and then our teams head into the camp, not for work but to chat, play and relax.

As Mohammed Tia, the camp chief told me: “The school isn’t just part of the community, it is the community”.

Together with this wonderful community we’ve had successes and failures, falling-outs and reconciliations, and celebrated births.

I don’t feel like I’m leaving a workplace, a challenge or a response, I feel like I’m leaving friends and family. As clichéd as that sounds, I think this is the biggest indication that we’ve done a great job.

Leaving was a very sad moment for me, but as I watched our school disappear behind the dust haze, I realised I had no regrets. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

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