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Kindergarten instructor Sylvia Namuwanga with refugee children who attend a Jesuit Refugee Service sponsored kindergarten in Kampala, Uganda, where they have a safe space to learn and play while their parents try to find work or learn English or other skills. (Luca Fabris / Entreculturas)

(Kampala) June 11, 2015 — Despite the importance of early education to their cognitive, social and emotional development, extreme poverty and discrimination hinders the full development of millions of children. This is especially true for refugee children as their parents struggle to rebuild their lives, find a home and stable employment, all while dealing with discrimination. Yet the reality is, when made accessible, early education can work wonders. 

Unlike primary school students who benefit from government-sponsored primary education, preschool in Uganda is neither free nor subsidized. This means most children from low-income families, especially refugees, miss out on vital years of early childhood development.

In an effort to address this need, Jesuit Refugee Service established a kindergarten in July 2012 for 45 children in need of a safe place to learn and play, while their parents tried to find work or learn English or other skills.

The project eases the integration of refugee children with their Ugandan peers, especially as they began to learn English. The children are eager to learn to read and write. This year, 50 children are set to finish preschool, and hopefully most will enter Ugandan primary schools.

Currently, JRS Kampala activities focus on providing a space where children have structure and an opportunity to play and socialize, which are important for early childhood development. The curriculum, including reading and writing in English, math and music, prepares the children for primary school. Singing classes give the children opportunities to improve their English. Some children have received education sponsorships in primary schools in Kampala where they are competing favorably with Ugandan children. 

Reflecting. The initial challenge of teaching these children a new language seemed daunting. Since most of the pupils were children of Congolese and Rwandan refugees, they only spoke Swahili and a little French, but no English. At first, I had to communicate with the students using only signs and sounds. With time and repetition, however, the children started picking up English and communication improved.

Working with the children never fails to bring challenges, as I often have to repeat lessons several times before they stick. When the children occasionally misbehave, I also have to find ways of gently, but firmly, bringing the class under control again. Such challenges, of course, are common to any preschool class, but I am working with the added challenge of a significant language barrier between the pupils and myself. 

The hard work has definitely been worth it, as many children who did not have the chance to go to pre-school now do. I am glad to have played a part in this accomplishment. 

The greatest lesson I have learned from my experience with these children so far is that whatever we do, if we do it with love and commitment, our efforts will yield fruits. It is all the more satisfying if we can, through our everyday work, touch people's lives in such a personal way. 

by Sylvia Namuwanga 
JRS Kampala Kindergarten Instructor

To support the educational efforts of Jesuit Refugee Service, please click here to make a tax-deductible secure online donation


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