This is mainly because during war school activities are disrupted, teachers are displaced or killed, and children are forced to flee their homes. Often children are separated from their parents and end up as orphans with no one to look after them. Others are abducted or recruited as child soldiers or mistresses.
Once in exile, schools frequently provide a safe haven for these children as they give them the opportunity to meet their peers, and learn and grow with them. However, it is not easy for refugee children to access education in host countries.
Education ranks last on priority list
In Kenya, for instance, asylum seekers must be registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to obtain official recognition as refugees and be granted access to education and other social services.
In cities like Nairobi, refugee children are not entitled to attend state schools until their asylum applications have been determined, which can take up to nine months. Parents or guardians tend to concentrate on obtaining refugee status in order to get food and shelter for the family before thinking about their children’s education. Even after being recognised as refugees, families with very limited resources prioritise shelter, food, medical assistance and protection.
Moreover, refugee children in urban areas often face huge obstacles to be being admitted into overburdened and under-resourced public schools. Even if parents can afford education, many children are put into classes in which their classmates are much younger than them. This makes the already long and complex integration process even more difficult.
Jean-Paul from Burundi, whose parents fled to Kenya in 1994, was only able to join pre-school in 2000, when he was already eight years old. “I was happy to finally go to school but I felt miserable because, unlike all the other children, I had no uniform and sometimes I had to go to school hungry”, he recalls. Despite these challenges, Jean-Paul has completed his primary school and recently started secondary school.
Compared to children like Jean-Paul, whose family has sought asylum in a city, children living in refugee camps have slightly better opportunities because they usually have free access to pre- and primary education provided by relief agencies.
Children are future ambassadors for peace
In Nairobi, JRS has been instrumental in assisting urban refugee children gain access to quality education. While JRS previously offered scholarship assistance at third level, the programme has recently changed its focus, also responding to the unmet needs of refugee children at all levels.
For instance students in Kenya who have not completed pre-primary level education cannot attend primary school. Therefore, JRS began offering scholarships and other support to children at pre-school, the cost of which, up to 225 euros per years, is otherwise prohibitive for refugees who are not entitled to work in the formal labour market.
Through the provision of scholarships, the organisation has enabled refugee students to gain access to different levels of education, ranging from pre-primary to third level. In 2009, JRS supported 100 students. Besides the payment of school fees, assistance also includes a subsistence allowance, the provision of uniforms, and school materials.
As well as offering children an opportunity to escape poverty, JRS sees quality education as playing an important in promoting peace and stability. Children who are victims of conflict and war but have access to education today are likely to be tomorrow’s ambassadors of peace whether they stay in exile, return to their country of origin or are resettled to a third country.
The names used for persons referred to in this article are fictitious.
Virginia Mumo, Scholarship Programme Coordinator in Nairobi, JRS Kenya