One million South Sudanese refugees have sought safety in Uganda since conflict broke out in December 2013. More than 85 per cent of them are women and children. In the dusty and arid landscape of Bidibidi settlement in northern Uganda, the largest refugee settlement of its kind in the world, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has partnered with Educate A Child (EAC), a programme of the Education Above All foundation, to help child refugees go to school. More than 120 classrooms have been built, teachers recruited, trained and accommodated, and school supplies distributed. In addition, refugee children, including those with disabilities, are supported to enrol in local schools.
One child’s wide smile stands out in a crowded classrooms in Bidibidi. John Luis is a 13-year-old boy living in the settlement with his mother and sister. His father stayed behind in South Sudan and they have no contact with him, but before they were separated he told his son, “Go to Uganda, learn everything.”
School has given John Luis the space to be a child again, setting off every morning from his shelter with his friends to walk to class and playing football in the evenings.
Crucially, school also provides John Luis and his friends with a protective space following the unimaginable violence they have experienced in their short lives. Their teacher warns them against the dangers of perpetuating this cycle of violence, and John Luis is his class’s number one advocate for peaceful coexistence and putting education first. “When my friend was fighting with another boy, I said to him, ‘Don’t fight, that is not good. You come to school and listen.’”
John Luis dreams about going back to the kind of school he attended before the conflict, with fewer students crammed into each class, but he doesn’t let that stop him getting on with his education. English is his favourite subject and he speaks it confidently. He has big hopes for the future, and studies hard. “I like to be in school here. I will know everything and I will be a doctor. I will help people,” insists John Luis.
In Bidibidi, the target enrolment of children in schools is 30,441. Despite progress made to date, continued efforts are necessary to keep up with the large numbers of refugees arriving, as well as school supplies, benches, latrines, classrooms and teachers – because every child helped is a life saved.