Dreams at stake – 21-year-old Rose had just two weeks of school before lockdown hit

 

Dreams at stake – 21-year-old Rose had just two weeks of school before lockdown hit

The covid-19 pandemic has derailed the lives of young people in South Sudan, a country recovering from a civil war. Rose, living in Yei, finally has a new opportunity to pursue her dreams.

WILD VEGETATION surrounds crumbled, abandoned mud huts. Scattered around, there are the remains of cars, stripped of wheels and other removable parts. Empty houses are missing their most valuable parts: tin roofs and windows.

The surge in returnees that accelerated prior to the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t repaired the damages caused by the 2016 civil war around the city of Yei. The sight is still stomach-churning for those returning to the region, says 29-year-old Viola Jabu. Life in Yei began completely anew, without a home or work.

“When we decided to return, I was afraid there’d be no one in Yei,” Viola Jaby says. She began the journey home from a Ugandan refugee settlement with nine children and adolescents in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.

“I was relieved to see plenty of life on the streets. However, our home had been destroyed.”

Viola Jabu and her family have settled behind an abandoned petrol station on a busy street. The suitcases and bags, in which the family has packed their entire life, are neatly piled in the children’s bedroom. The parents sleep in a storage room, lit by the light coming in through a tiny window.

“We returned from Uganda because life as a refugee was tough. It was difficult to find food and work and the children were often ill. My husband lived here already and told us that it’s safe now,” Viola Jabu tells.

“We couldn’t have imagined that we’d have to face a pandemic, too.”

Nainen, jolla on pieni lapsi sylissään.
Viola Jabu and soon 2-year-old Emmanuela returned to Yei in February 2020.

Over a year without school

Across the street is St. Joseph’s s School. There, 21-year-old Rose Night began her second year as an upper secondary school student. Rose lives with her uncle Woi Wilson, Viola Jabu’s partner. Rose’s parents abandoned her when she was a child; her father disappeared, and her mother moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Wearing her school uniform, Rose has patiently listened to our conversation for over an hour. Then she can no longer wait.

“When are you going to ask me something?” she asks. It’s uncommon for students to volunteer for interviews unprompted.

“School has taught me that one must be courageous and study a lot, so that it’s possible to make one’s own decisions in life. With the help of education, you can find work and look after yourself,” she quotes her teachers.

Rose started school at the age of nine with support from her uncle, and her dream is to become a lawyer. Uncle Woi Wilson hopes Rose will one day study at a university.

Rose’s schooling already came to a halt once when the family fled to Uganda. After returning to South Sudan, she was in school for just two weeks before the closure.

“We were told to stay at home and be patient, but there was nothing to do. I was sad.”

In South Sudan, the opportunities to switch to remote learning were non-existent, which is why numerous children and adolescents had their schooling suspended for over a year. In a country that has already suffered from a civil war, it is estimated that 2.2 million children didn’t go to school before the pandemic, and according to an estimate by UNICEF, the pandemic doubled the number to 4.3 million.

Viola Jabu and Woi Wilson organised home schooling for the children, so that they wouldn’t forget the importance of education in pursuing their dreams. Everywhere in the world, the lives of the young are full of temptations. Rose kept her chin up.

“Young people started to act up, run off from home at night, party and drink and consume other drugs. I didn’t do like the others and that’s why some distanced themselves from me,” Rose says.

“Young people no longer knew where their lives were headed.”

Talo, jonka pihalla on kolme ihmistä. Yksi heistä kuokkii maata.

Viola Jabu’s family is building a kitchen garden in front of an old petrol station. In the city every plot that can be used for growing is utilised. Pictured also cousins Grace (left) and Rose.

Eri ikäisiä ihmisiä pöydän ääressä. Pöydällä on papereita.

Viola Jabu was home schooling children and adolescents when schools where closed because of the pandemic.

Nuori tyttö hymyilee ja katsoo vasemmalle.

Rose dreams of university studies and becoming a lawyer.

A new kind of threat

Yei is the third largest city in South Sudan and strategically important for commerce due to its location near the borders to both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda.

The county surrounding the city is known as the granary of South Sudan, and in peacetime Yei can ensure the availability of food in the entire country.

The current peace agreement has been in force for over three years, yet outside the city there are still armed groups that haven’t signed it. The residents can’t go to the vast fields in the villages, so it’s common to see corn planted on roadsides all over the city.

Finn Church Aid (FCA) supports food security for returning migrants and their opportunities to earn a living with, for example, cash assistance. Tens of thousands of people have already returned from Uganda to star over in life, says Moses Habib, humanitarian coordinator at FCA.

“We’ve supported returning families with cash, so in the beginning they’re able to buy food, repair their homes and cover the costs of their children’s schooling,” he tells.

For years the residents of Yei have persisted in the face of various threats. On top of war, there is disease. A poster on the wall of a centre that registers returning migrants encourages getting vaccinated against polio. South Sudan is one of the few countries in the world in which the disease has been resurgent in recent years.

Another poster explains the symptoms of ebola and emphasises the importance of hand hygiene in stopping its spread. It resembles a newer poster next to it, which explains how to avoid catching Covid-19.

The most significant consequences of the pandemic are linked to livelihood and education. Globally, the UN estimates that the pandemic has pushed tens of millions of families to the brink of extreme poverty.

“Teachers had to find other jobs for when the schools were closed, and many students have had to support their families by working. We’re concerned that some of them won’t come back,” says Habib.

Katunäkymä. Koulupukuisia nuoria kävelee tietä pitkin kohti kameraa.

School-related costs, such as learning materials and school uniforms, can be too expensive for a poor family.

Kaksi nuorta naista koululuokassa.

Rose (right) and her classmate Vivian are lucky, because they had the opportunity to return to school.

Work instead of school

18-year-old Samuel Ayki toils away at a vegetable plot with his two brothers. It’s only been two weeks since the beanie-wearing young man returned to Yei. Samuel spent the early stages of the pandemic as a refugee in Uganda, where school closures lasted for 80 weeks, longer than anywhere else in the world. Because of the restrictions on movement, the local market at the refugee settlement was closed, and Samuel’s mother Mary lost her income. Samuel was due to finish comprehensive school in spring 2020 and now he’s supposed to study at upper secondary level.

Samuel’s (centre) family can’t afford school fees. 

“Covid ruined my schooling. It feels like my brain became blunt because I wasn’t able to learn anything new,” Samuel says.

In South Sudan, schools reopened in May 2021. When a friend of Samuel’s went back to school in Yei, he encouraged Samuel to return home. However, all related costs, such as learning materials and school uniforms, were such a huge expense for a poor family that Samuel couldn’t afford them. On top of this, the family needed the money Samuel was able to make doing odd jobs here and there.

Samuel plans to save money to return to school. Work is difficult to find, as he’s been away from the city for a long time and the pandemic has impoverished businesses. “I’m sad seeing my friends and neighbours go to school, when I’m just looking for work or sitting at home. Sometimes I try to study on my own using the notebooks I brought back with me from Uganda,” Samuel tells.

Katunäkymä. Kaksi nuorta miestä tervehtii toisiaan. Toisella on koulupuku päällään.

Peter, the friend of 18-year-old Samuel (right), goes to school. In Yei, students stand out because of their uniforms.

Nainen istuu sohvatuolilla. Nuori mies istuu sohvatuolin käsinojalla.

“Samuel buys food for his siblings with the money he’s saved for school. I feel sad seeing him go job hunting instead of school,” says Samuel’s mother Mary.

Nuori nainen tekee läksyjä sängyn päällä.

Rose is preparing for the first exam week in 18 months.

Mies pitää kuumemittaria nuoren naisen korvan kohdalla. Taustalla jonottaa nuoria koulupuvuissaan.

The schools in South Sudan were opened in May 2021. Rose and other students have their temperature taken and everyone must wear a mask.

Covid-19 puts girls’ schooling at risk

Having fewer and fewer opportunities for making a living has driven families to desperate decisions. Many girls have had to get married, because marriages benefit families financially.

Child marriages were a severe problem in South Sudan already prior to the pandemic; almost every other girl married underage, and now the number of child brides and teenage pregnancies has only gone up. Getting pregnant almost always means that the girl drops out of school, and the consequences are drastic when it comes to continuing education. Rose’s best friend didn’t return to the classroom when the schools reopened their doors.

“She decided to get married. Now she has a baby and can’t return to school. I don’t know what that means to her future, but I miss her,” Rose says.

Working as a grocer, uncle Woi Wilson’s livelihood has been dependent on the road running to the capital Juba and the neighbouring Uganda. Due to the pandemic, the traffic of goods slowed down, resulting in less income for sellers and higher prices for food. With the help of cash assistance from FCA, the family was able to buy food and support the continuation of the children’s schooling. After a long struggle, Rose is preparing for her first exam week in 18 months.

Many other enthusiastic students are waiting by the gates of St. Joseph’s School, where a guard takes their temperature and checks everyone is wearing a face mask. Fortunately, there’s one to spare for a girl who has left hers at home.

“At school I feel safe. Learning brightens my mind and give meaning to my days,” beams Rose.


Text: Erik Nyström
Photos: Antti Yrjönen
Translation: Anne Salomäki


Finn Church Aid (FCA) works in the most vulnerable communities in South Sudan, supporting the food security and livelihood opportunities for families. In autumn 2021, a programme was started to offer cash assistance to help children and adolescents who’ve returned from Uganda to cover the cost of their schooling. Comprehensive schools receive support in organising schooling. Emergency help is offered to disaster victims regardless of age, background or gender.

As schools in Uganda reopen, refugees crowd into classrooms

After two years of closures, Ugandan schools reopened and refugees eagerly returned to classrooms

Schools were closed in spring 2020 as Uganda went into lockdown due to COVID-19. Over fifteen million children were out of school, including more than 600,000 primary and secondary aged refugee students.

ISAAC MUNYUZA’S favourite subject is biology, and he dreams of becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, for the last year, he has been working as an unskilled labourer while schools in Uganda were closed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Schools were closed in June 2021 as the country went into lockdown following a second wave of COVID-19.  Over fifteen million children were out of school, including more than 600,000 primary and secondary aged refugee students.

Munyuza, who is eighteen, fled Congo with his parents and siblings in 2014 following the war that left hundreds of people dead and others injured.

“Life was hard in Congo. We were always terrified that soldiers would come and kill us. Because of the uncertainty, we decided to cross the border into Uganda and seek refuge,” he says as he sits on the doorstep of his home in Kyaka II refugee settlement in Western Uganda.

“Now I will be able to walk to school”

Munyuza is one of the students that will be joining Bukere Secondary School on January 10th 2022 when schools reopen. The new school was constructed in Kyaka refugee settlement by Finn Church Aid (FCA) with funding from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

“My new school has a laboratory so I will be able to do my practical lessons from there,” he adds.

“Bukere secondary school…its closer to home. Now I will be able to walk to school and arrive on time before classes start. I used to reach late at my former school because it was far, and I had to walk a long distance. Sometimes I would even miss school,” says Munyuza. Prior to the school closure, Munyuza was studying from Bujubuli secondary school which is about ten kilometres away from his home.

The new secondary school will help reduce the reduce the number of students in the classroom which is expected to be huge in January 2022. This is because each grade will have a double cohort of students that couldn’t move on to the next grade due to the pandemic.

Hämärässä huoneessa oleva mies katsoo ikkunasta ulos.
Vallence Tukacungurwa, Head Teacher at Bukere Secondary school eagerly awaits students returning to their school in January 2022. Photo: Melany Markham/FCA

“Construction of more classrooms to cater for the big number of students is underway, and we are equipping teachers with knowledge and skills to handle large classes once schools resume. We have given teachers, parents and learners psychosocial support to mentally prepare them for the reopening,” says Dennis Okullu Ogang, FCA´s Education Specialist.

“At Bukere Secondary school we have already enrolled over 250 students to attend senior one, two and three.” says Vallence Tukacungurwa the Head Teacher at Bukere Secondary school.

Schools with special support

During lockdown, FCA ensured that over 70,000 children at all levels could continue learning by providing home learning/self-study materials developed by the National Development Curriculum Centre (NCDC) to students. Children from vulnerable families were supplied with radio handsets and, teachers conducted live radio lessons. Home learning was further supported by small community learning groups and home visits.

Still, many students faced significant barrier to their education. Over 90,000 girls under 18 years have become pregnant while under lockdown according to a United Nations Population Fund 2020 report on teenage pregnancy and FCA is working hand in hand with the government to allow them to attend school.

“FCA is also rolling out the Ministry of Education ‘s policy on prevention and managing teenage pregnancy in schools in Uganda so that schools can accept girls who became pregnant during school closure by supporting them with counselling through the school system so that they can continue with learning” says Okullu Ogang.

One of these measures is a collaboration with the nearby health facilities so that they can assist in case of an emergency.

Every student and staff member has their temperature taken in FCA’s schools and leaves their contact information in case of confirmed Covid 19 infection. Photo: Melany Markham/FCA

Another measure that aims to help these and other students complete their studies is the condensed curriculum for primary and lower secondary students. Funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (EU/ECHO), this will allow refugees and Ugandans who are now over school age to complete their studies.

Significant resources have also been spent so that children with disabilities will be welcomed into the classroom.

“We have established schools with specialized facilities for children with disabilities. We have set up a full-fledged Special Needs Education (SNE) School in Adjumani and an SNE specialised school in Kyaka refugee settlement to cater for children with severe disabilities. We have also recruited and deployed teachers who are specialised in SNE,” says Okullu Ogang.

Preparing for a safe return to the classroom

“Our teachers have been moving around the settlement sensitizing the community about the Standard Operating Procedures directed by the Government of Uganda to curb the spread of COVID-19. We have also mobilized to ensure that teachers get vaccinate,” says Tukacungurwa, adding that they have been informing people about the services available at the new school.

Preventing COVID-19 takes more than just talk and so FCA has provided equipment like infrared thermometers/temperature guns, handwashing stations, sanitizer, soap and facemasks to over one hundred schools and Early Childhood Development Centres within the refugee settlements.

Koulun piha Ugandassa.
Bukere secondary school was still waiting for students in late 2021. Photo: Melany Markham/FCA

“We have also trained school surveillance teams comprising of students, senior management members and teachers to be able to fully monitor adherence to COVID-19 prevention measures at the schools,” says Okullu Ogang.

FCA has done everything that they can to make sure that schools continue to be safe spaces for children to learn and staff are proud to open their doors again to classrooms. The staff at Bukere Secondary School have gone even further by making their school are pleasant environment to learn.

“Currently we are in the process of beautifying the school. We have planted trees, slashed the compounds and are cleaning all the facilities like the classrooms which have been unused for quite some time,” says Tukacungurwa.

Standing at the doorway of his new classroom, Munyuza appreciates their efforts. “I am excited to go back to school. I like my new school,” he says.


By: Linda Kabuzire
Photos: Melany Markham