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A refugee teacher in Gendrassa refugee camp, Maban, South Sudan leaves the school after a long day of teaching primary school students (Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service).

Nairobi, 8 October 2015 – The refugee crisis underway today in Europe is driven by Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Eritrean, Sudanese and other African refugees fleeing war and oppressive circumstances. Humanitarian crises disrupt education by delaying access to schools and contributing to higher dropout and lower completion rates. When such emergencies result in displacement, the lack of access to quality education can have profound implications for the ability of affected communities to recover and thrive.

From Syria to Afghanistan, from Ethiopian camps hosting Eritrean refugees to South Sudanese communities hosting internally displaced families, JRS seeks to help refugees and the displaced become self-sufficient via our education programmes.

Through our education programmes, JRS has been accompanying and serving refugees and internally displaced people in southern Sudan – now the independent country of South Sudan – since 1992. Schools provide hope, and education creates a culture of peace that enables refugees to ease their resettlement and integration into their new countries of refuge, or – the hope of so many – to return home as leaders of their communities to help rebuild their countries. 

The fundamental right of children to education is most at risk during emergencies. Humanitarian crises – including wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and protracted conflict – disrupt education, delay access, and contribute to higher dropout and lower completion rates. When such emergencies result in displacement, the lack of access to quality education can have profound implications for the ability of affected communities to recover and thrive.

"I was born in war, I went to school during war, I got married during war, I raised my six children during war and now I am growing old and raising grandchildren in war. I am so sick of war," said Lucia, 56, at the Jesuit Refugee Service compound in Maban, South Sudan. Lucia has been displaced four times in her life. Violence in her native South Sudan comes in waves, with each new cycle of life.

Four years ago, the international community joined South Sudan in celebrating what seemed to be a new era as it overcame five decades of war and gained independence. However, the hoped for stability did not follow the earlier joy of independence.

To the north, in Sudan, war continued as the Khartoum government rained bombs down on its own states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, on the new southern border. These assaults have left 500,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance and have resulted in 130,000 new refugees from Blue Nile state seeking refuge in South Sudan.

Violence also continued in South Sudan, eventually escalating into an open civil war following an outbreak of intensified conflict in December of 2013. Since independence in 2011, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people have perished, and more than two million people are currently displaced. A new and long-term threat has resulted as well: one-third of the South Sudanese population faces severe food shortages.

"I grew up in war, but the worst challenge I've faced has been during this recent one. I was living in Malakal when fighting came to my home in January. My house was burnt to the ground. The next day I found rebels with weapons in what was left of my damaged house. They were the age of my son and they wanted to take me as their wife," said Lucia.

"I managed to escape. Even though nothing of my home remains, my life did. I have neighbours who lost everything, including people they love. I am lucky," said Lucia, showing the only thing that remains of her home – a photo on her mobile phone.

The stories of people who are surviving this conflict are filled with hope amidst despair. Across ethnic, religious and regional lines, and despite the tremendous suffering that has become the norm, the yearning for education, based on an unquenchable faith in a better tomorrow, still persists.

Jesuit Refugee Service has been responding to this call for education from refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) since 1992. JRS first established schools in refugee camps in northern Uganda, and later expanded its work to increase access to education in four sites in southern Sudan.

Flora was one of the refugees who fled to Uganda, where she resided and received education from 1992 until 1996. Today she works as the assistant education coordinator for JRS in Maban. JRS has been serving refugees who have relocated to the Maban community from Blue Nile state in Sudan, as well as the local host and IDP communities, with teacher training programmes, adult literacy education and psychosocial programming, among other services.

"Refugees are traumatised, they've been chased out of their homes, and without assistance and protection they will live in insecurity, and they will never feel at home. But if they can access education they will have hope that their lives will improve once peace comes. They'll make a difference," said Flora.

JRS is also working to extend education in Yambio, South Sudan, by training teachers, increasing access to education for girls, and constructing schools for returnee and IDP populations.

Operating in both these locations is precarious at best. South Sudan ranks in the top five most dangerous countries in the world for humanitarian workers. In Maban, the JRS team was evacuated twice in 2014, and experienced threats of renewed violence in 2015. Yambio, which was relatively peaceful, recently suffered a bout of violence causing further internal displacement.

In both areas, however, JRS remains committed to giving space for children and adults to learn, a fundamental way to foster hope for a brighter future.

To further this vision, JRS will soon expand its project in Maban to take over a vocational training centre that was occupied, until recently, by armed forces. In this centre JRS hopes to provide English, vocational skills training and computer classes – and eventually the Jesuit Commons Higher Education at the Margins program, an online tertiary education initiative.

Additionally, JRS will establish a nursery school in an IDP camp near the capital of Juba, populated entirely with women and children, who have little access to any form of schooling. In early 2016, JRS plans to re-enter Adjumani, Uganda, by first renovating secondary school facilities and later filling education gaps. The impact of programmes like these has been made evident through the contributions made by those people like Lucia and Flora who were educated while they were in exile in years past.

"Without education people really suffer. This war is because of illiteracy. If these people were educated it would have never gotten to this point. Educating a younger generation will bring peace to South Sudan," said Lucia, who despite her difficult circumstances was able to study to become a medical practitioner and is now employed as storekeeper at a pharmacy in one of the heath posts run by an NGO.

JRS Maban project director Pau Vidal SJ agrees.

"Because of the war, because of the displacement, the majority of South Sudanese haven't had access to education, haven't been able to understand the reasons for the war … therefore it has been very easy for the elites — both of the north and of the south — to use the people, to send them to the battlefields to be killed, to be slaughtered without any real reason. So hopefully, if we are able to invest in education, the future could be brighter because you would have a population who are not as willing as they were before to hold a gun and to kill other people," said Fr. Pau.

While the South Sudanese government has dedicated most of its financial resources to funding the ongoing war, they have neglected their country's children, failing to provide even basic education to the vast majority of the population. In Upper Nile State alone an estimated 63 percent of schools are occupied by armed forces, and often teachers haven't been paid in months.

"Teachers are alone, they don't have the support of the government… We have to support them, to empower them and this is the hope of education in Maban," said Alvar Sanchez SJ, JRS Maban education coordinator.

As a result of the fighting and lack of support, South Sudan has the highest illiteracy rate in the world. Only two percent of kids who should be attending secondary school are enrolled in classes. For those with access to school, persistent insecurity and severe food shortages often disrupt their studies. For two consecutive years, primary school students could not sit for their national exit exams in Upper Nile. They finally managed to do so in 2015, however those exam papers were burnt in Malakal, a hub of recent violence, leaving a generation of children with their dreams of even completing primary school shattered.

"Security is a big problem, there is no safety. After every two months or so violence disrupts school and students don't come to class. Children lack the basic necessities to study, like books. There is not enough food and no drinking water. These are essential to becoming a good student," said Abuolela, a refugee and teacher in Maban. He is one of 100 primary school teachers trained by JRS in English, teaching methodology, and other subjects.

Despite the hardships, these refugee teachers use education as their protest to injustice.

"I have chosen to be a teacher because I want to help children and to keep the generation moving forward… When I teach and see the achievements of my students I feel happy because I know they are going to know their rights," said Leila, another refugee and teacher in Maban. 


"If our grandfathers were educated and they had educated their children, our problems of today wouldn't be here. We wouldn't be here as refugees," she added.

This cyclical violence is likely to propagate to future generations as long as education remains a distant dream for most. According to UNICEF, 70 percent of children between six and 17 years of age in South Sudan have never stepped inside a classroom and 9,000 children have been recruited into various armed groups.

In addition to increased access to education, the South Sudanese government must prioritise long-term structural peace if brutal violence, ongoing food insecurity and the displacement of millions are to subside.

The signing of the new peace agreement in August, which enforces an immediate end to fighting, political power sharing as well as justice for atrocities committed through a commission for truth, reconciliation and healing, is one step in the right direction. However, the leaders from both sides have to commit to the implementation of this deal if lives are really to be protected. Too many peace deals and ceasefires have not been honoured.

"The work before the humanitarian community — as well as South Sudanese leaders — is immense. Lasting peace is an urgent need to ensure that food can be grown, students can learn, lives can be saved and people can return to their homes," said Beatrice Gikonyo, JRS Eastern Africa advocacy officer.

Although humanitarian agencies and the international community have mobilised to help mitigate the effects of violence in South Sudan, not nearly enough has been done to ensure the majority of people receive proper nutrition, education or protection. The World Food Programme is still $163.4 million short of their 2015 funding appeal, leading to a 30 percent cut in food rations for refugees, while other agencies cannot keep up with the escalating and pressing needs of those in despair.

Jesuit Refugee Service will continue to commit its resources and advocacy efforts to help mitigate the long-term effects of this conflict by enhancing education efforts in South Sudan today. Schools provide the stability that children need to cope with the loss, fear, stress and violence experienced during times of crisis. Being in school can keep children safe and protected from risks, including gender-based violence, recruitment into armed groups, child labour and early marriage.

Education can also contribute to peace building and foster the development of more resilient and cohesive societies. With access to a quality education, a child can better fulfill his or her own potential and fully contribute to the growth, strength and stability of their society.

Access to schools and quality education is an urgent priority for all war-affected children and youth, as it is a basic human right and is fundamental to a better future for their communities. For these reasons, JRS advocates for the basic right to emergency and long-term educational opportunities and urges better access to schooling for war-affected children and youth.

JRS recommendations for action:

  • The warring parties of South Sudan must implement the peace agreement of August 2015, and restore the stability needed to ensure a secure future for the South Sudanese people, including access to basic human rights such as access to education. 
  • The international community must work to ensure that adequate resources are provided and properly channeled to build up the administrative structures and infrastructure needed to develop and sustain services for the people of South Sudan. This includes providing sustained funding for the activities of international agencies such as the UN Refugee Agency, the World Food Programme, and UNMISS, until the government of South Sudan can assume full responsibility for the safety and welfare of the population. 
  • The government of South Sudan must make a long term investment in quality education that brings together children of various ethnic groups by ensuring regular payment of teacher salaries, preservation and upkeep of schools and that adequate government funds are allocated to education, especially secondary and tertiary levels of education. 
  • Governmental and non-governmental international humanitarian agencies must protect IDPs currently living in informal, inhospitable settlements with little to no access to food or water, especially children who are at risk of military recruitment or sexual violence. 

Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer