(Masisi) March 10, 2015 – "To me education is about dignity. It's about giving children – who have nothing – a way to engage in the society around them and do something with their lives besides contribute to the violence that surrounds them," explains Sr Esperance Hamuli, Education Coordinator with Jesuit Refugee Service in Masisi.
Sr Hamuli works in Masisi a district in the eastern Congo in which conflict has raged for more than 20 years. The violence has forced more than two and half million people to flee their homes and contributed to one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. Fleeing their villages means they lose their farmland, and instead must work as day laborers on the fields of host families. They receive so little as day laborers, they and their families often go hungry. In such circumstances, it is hard to convince children to stay in school when their basic needs are not met. It is difficult to understand why education is important
Sr Hamuli works with children who struggle to stay in school.
"I try to visit each of the schools to make sure that IDP children remain in class and are being treated correctly. Dropout rates among the displaced population remain extremely high. Poverty, high school fees, a lack of food, teenage pregnancies and early marriage make it difficult for many to remain in school. Children often ask me 'what's the point? Why should I stay in school? What does it give me?'"
In one case, Sr Hamuli visited Yvonne, a young woman who had recently dropped out of high school.
"Yvonne asked me how education could help her after having experienced so much suffering. I explained that school could offer her new opportunities; make her a better mother later in life; and empower her to do things like a start a business."
The UN cultural agency (UNESCO) recognizes education as a main strategy in the mitigation of the psychological effects of conflict and displacement. School gives children, like Yvonne, a space to recover from trauma. Structured activities, including sports, allow children from both host and IDP communities to get to know each other and find common ground in a peaceful context. Making friends in a stable environment provides normalcy to a childhood disrupted by war.
After speaking to Sr Hamuli, Yvonne decided to go back to a school closer to her hometown. In another case, Sr Hamuli worked with a young girl, Makuu Wabo, who was born without arms in an IDP camp. Her family is extremely poor and lives with a host family. Against all the odds Makuu learned to write her feet, yet she still relies on her classmates and teachers for help with additional tasks.
"When we brought her into the school, we had an individual meeting with everyone to discuss the best ways to give her the support she needs. She's been doing well," smiles Sr Hamuli.
School provided a place for Makuu to meet other community members on her own terms. School for Makuu is a safe space free from discrimination.
Going to school not only allowed Makuu to learn the skills necessary to participate fully in society, but it involved the entire community in ensuring her participation.
Education does not solve all the problems experienced by IDPs. It does not solve the conflict and violence experienced by these children on a daily basis. Yet it provides a sense of normalcy and structure to children that have fled their homelands, watched relatives die and experienced the constant threat of violence.
by Caitlin Hannahan
Jesuit Refugee Service Advocacy and Communications Officer