When the terror began, they fled – Finn Church Aid followed the first weeks of Ukraine’s war and how ordinary people became refugees
In spring 2022, first thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions of Ukrainians crossed the border to neighbouring countries in search of safety. Even more Ukrainians are living as internally displaced people. We documented the refugee crisis and aid deliveries on the spot for three weeks.
2 March 2022. In east Ukraine, the main street of the small village of Barabás is calm, despite Europe going through its worst crisis since World War II. The border is just a few minutes’ drive away, and on the other side, in Ukraine, Russia’s brutal war of aggression is raging.
The local village house in Barabás has been turned into a refugee shelter, where Ukrainians who’ve left their homes and crossed the border can find safety. From there, they continue towards the Hungarian capital Budapest.
The refugee crisis that has resulted from the war looks somehow different to what we’re used to seeing in news images. The camps that we’ve seen in traditional refugee imagery are missing from the sides of the roads, and some people are driving to safety in their modern cars. Almost everyone has a smartphone, and their clothes are unscathed; yet still these people are running for their lives.
Inside the village house, there are tired families, to whom volunteers are serving food and drinks. The journey has been long, but the kids still have some energy left. They’re colouring at the tables, and you can hear someone giggle.
Tired families gathered inside the village house in Barabás.
Barabás, a small city with a population of 700, is located in the border area between Ukraine and Hungary. It became the first point of humanitarian aid Finn Church Aid and its sister organisation HIA – Hungary shared when the Ukraine’s war began in February.
Chop railway station
Kristina is standing outside, and her eyes seem sore from crying. The young woman has fled Russian aggression twice already. In 2014, she left her home in Lugansk in east Ukraine, and she thought she’d be able to return home after three days.
The days turned into eight years, and Kristina settled in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. In February 2022, she had to flee again, and catching an evacuation train wasn’t easy.
“People started to panic and run and push each other. There were men to whom we tried to tell that children must be protected first, then women and lastly men. Everyone was trying to save themselves,” Kristina says. She fled together with her mother and cat.
At the railway station of Chop on the Ukrainian side of the border, an elderly lady sat in a half-empty departure lounge introduces herself as Nadiya Petrovna Chiripovskaya. She says she had started her journey from the badly bombed Kharkiv.
Mrs Nadiya describes the first strikes as loud and scary. The calendar says it’s 5 March, but it’s difficult for her to remember when the journey began: “My children just took me with them.”
Many people leave the border crossing with a broken heart. Men are wiping their eyes and hugging low-spirited women and children, who are going to cross the border to Hungary and head to safety. Men of fighting age turn their cars around to cross the Carpathian Mountains, heading back to their homes and bases. No one knows when they can see their loved ones again – or whether this was a goodbye.
A scene from Berehove.
Border town school turned into refugee shelter
Although millions of Ukrainians have left their home country, an even larger number of people is living as internally displaced people within the borders of Ukraine. In the border town of Berehove, a school hosts almost 80 internally displaced Ukrainians. There are five bunks beds placed a small room, and there’s a family of five sitting on them: father Kirill, mother Ljubov, siblings Alica and Masha, and their relative Daria.
The family used to work at a theatre in Kharkiv and fled west as soon as the bombings and shelling began. Many loved ones stayed behind.
“They are hiding in basements, staying at metro stations for various days and trying to find food in inconceivable ways,” says father Kirill.
Ljubov (back in the left), Daria, Alica (front) and Masha are from Kharkiv.
The family already misses having things to do. The following day, Kirill is going to go to a job interview, and the women are planning to weave protective nets for the Ukrainian army.
The other family staying in the room has a small cat, and the animal is jumping from one bed to another. Larissa, wearing a scarf around hear head, says that it took four days for the family to reach Berehove from Kharkiv.
“We’re happy to have a warm place to sleep, we get food three times a day, we can wash ourselves and do laundry.”
Larissa has cancer. In Kharkiv, she was given treatment, but the hospital has been destroyed by bombs. Now she wonders if it would be possible to be admitted to a Hungarian hospital, but she’s hesitant. The family members would end up apart, because her partner has to stay in Ukraine.
Angel-shaped Christmas lights are watching over the streets of Lviv in Western Ukraine.
A basement in Lviv, turned into a bomb shelter during air raids.
Air raid in Lviv
On 11 March, an air raid makes children and grownups jump out of their beds in Lviv, approximately 60 kilometres from the border with Poland. The time is 5.25, when the smartphone app starts to make a wailing sound. Quilted trousers on, coat on, two flights of stairs down, and to the basement door.
Two families with children come to the bomb shelter. One of the children is sneezing and coughing; another one finds a piece of chalk and draws a heart on the foundation of the shelter. Previously someone has played noughts and crosses on the staircase.
The girl continues her work tirelessly, and soon every stair in the bomb shelter is decorated with a lilac heart.
At 7.34, the app says that the danger is over.
Later on the same day, in the buzz of the Lviv railway station, we meet Anna, shivering in the station tunnel with her mother Natalia and cat Gorkik. The ginger animal leans firmly against Anna’s chest and trembles.
One day at a time
In the outskirts of Lviv, 6-year-old boy Kyryl is leaning against a door frame with a grin on his face. He’s full of energy, and he’s jumping up and down in a room with mattresses on the floor. After fleeing Kyiv, the little rascal has spent four days in a refugee shelter at a church.
Next to him, his sister says that Kyryl probably doesn’t understand he’s escaping. Many parents tell a similar story: children see the situation as a peculiar holiday, and they continue playing whenever an opportunity arises.
Natalia Karpienko and her 9-year-old son Igor are staying in the room next door. On the bed lies the youngest guest of the shelter, Nastia. The two-month-old smells of sweet breastmilk, and she’s making happy sounds. Her small feet are kicking inside the playsuit, and there’s a white beanie on her head.
Natalia says they’ve come from the Kyiv region, near Boryspil. “When the bombings started at night, I didn’t know where to go. I was scared that our house would be destroyed. In this shelter I feel safe.”
400 meals a day
After mid-March, people have been fleeing the war for the fourth consecutive week. It’s striking to see that the border crossing between Hungary and Ukraine is now controlled by women in military outfits. Maybe all capable men are already fighting?
The border town of Berehove is full of internally displaced Ukrainians. Finn Church Aid and its sister organisation Hungarian Interchurch Aid are supporting refugees with food and material deliveries. The hardest work is done by local volunteers, who have been working around the clock for weeks to help refugees.
The kitchen at a refugee shelter set up in a school is managed by Ivonna Kobypyavska. She’s worked in the same kitchen for 27 years already, but now she’s feeding refugees instead of school children. Ivonna’s son went to fight in Kyiv, so she wanted to do something useful; hence, she continued to work in the kitchen without pay.
A school kitchen in Berehove is feeding now 400 refugees a day.
Now Ivonna and her team prepare 400 meals a day to fill the stomachs of refugees. Just a month ago, she was feeding 40 school kids. She starts her days in the kitchen at 6am and goes home at 11pm.
“But it’s not a big deal,” Ivonna notes and smiles, looking baffled. Routine, routine, the translator says Ivonna has just told us.
On the top floor of the school, there’s still the theatre family from Kharkiv we met weeks ago. Mother Ljubov is worried, because for a few days the family hasn’t been able to contact friends in Mariupol. Larissa, the cancer patient staying in the same room, has been admitted to a hospital in a nearby town. Her partner and daughter have stayed at the shelter, as has their cat Bella. Bella is walking on the bed frame and playfully pokes her paws towards the guests.
Ljubov says that her husband Kirill hasn’t managed to find work yet. The future seems hazy, but three weeks at the shelter has made the family consider what to do next. Ljubov has been toying with ideas: maybe Poland, if she can find a suitable art project. We say goodbye to the family and wish them the best of luck.
In mid-April, we receive a message. Daria from the theatre family tells us she’s gone to Italy to try her wings. The other girls of the family are in Georgia, and father Kirill has stayed in Berehove.
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Photos: Antti Yrjönen Translation: Anne Salomäki
10-year-old Mariia fleed with her family from Kharkiv to West Ukrainian city Berehove. Mariia misses her school.
The war in Ukraine began on February 24th. Over 10 million people have fleed both inside and across the borders of Ukraine.
“Most mothers are here alone with their children” — Ukrainian teacher Erika Pavliuk already misses her blackboard, but first she helps refugees staying at the school
When Russia attacked Ukraine, English teacher Erika Pavliuk sent her students home and started volunteering at the refugee shelter set up at the school. Pavliuk helps internally displaced people who’ve fled other parts of Ukraine by offering a bed, warmth, and food.
“I HEARD the news from my husband. He was surfing on the internet and said the words that will always play in my head: our country has been attacked.”
English teacher Erika Pavliuk sits in her empty classroom in Berehove in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Hungary, and runs over the events of an early Thursday morning. It was 24 February 2022, and Russia had begun a brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.
Pavliuk says that she, in disbelief, dismissed the news at first. The family members continued with morning routines in uncertainty. Their 5-year-old daughter was taken to daycare, and unaware of what was really happening, Pavliuk headed to her workplace in the local school.
In the first class of the day, the teacher was standing in front of her 12-year-old pupils in the classroom. The atmosphere was dreary.
“I remember a boy sitting in class looking really pale. His nose started to bleed. I told the pupils to put their books aside and decided to just talk about what the children were most worried about. Practically, my pupils were afraid of being killed soon,” Pavliuk recalls.
After the first class on Thursday, the school received instructions from authorities. Teaching had to be suspended and all pupils were to be sent home.
“The daycare of my daughter also rang me to say that she must be picked up immediately. As soon as I arrived, the children had already been evacuated from the building. They were waiting for their parents outside, and at that moment nobody knew what would happen next.”
A few of weeks later, we already know a little more about what would happen in the coming months. In March, Russia would carry out missile strikes against the most strategically important targets in western Ukraine as well, but the most destructive battles would take place elsewhere in the country.
In early April, already four million Ukrainian refugees would have crossed the border to neighbouring countries. On top of this, western Ukraine would receive an immense number of internally displaced people.
From a teacher to a volunteer
As the war went on, Pavliuk, her colleagues, and other residents of the small town of Berehove began to understand the situation. Refugees from other parts of Ukraine started to arrive at the school already at the end of February.
In a matter of days, the entire town of Berehove set out to help those fleeing war. The teachers, school cooks, and other members of staff started volunteering. Pavliuk and her colleagues went through donations, organised things on behalf of refugees arriving at the centre, and helped them with whatever issues they might face.
The days were long for everyone, and there was no time for days off. Pavliuk says that time went by fast.
“The energy just came from somewhere. People needed help. I didn’t feel tired during the day, but when I went home, I fell asleep immediately when my head hit the pillow.”
The school soon became an important hub, as it was possible to prepare food for large crowds in its big kitchen. In normal times, 300 pupils go to the school.
“During the first days, some refugees only stayed at the shelter for a few hours, took a shower, and ate something. After that, they continued towards the border. We didn’t know what direction the situation would take,” Pavliuk says.
The school can accommodate approximately 80 refugees in bunk beds in the rooms previously used by school students. As the fighting dragged on, some of the refugees stayed at the shelter for weeks. Hungarian Interchurch Aid, a partner organisation of Finn Church Aid, provided the kitchen with new refrigeration equipment, numerous food deliveries, and a washing machine for the utility room.
Fathers stay on the front line
As a volunteer, Pavliuk has heard stories from various families fleeing fighting, and she feels moved recalling them. Many of those who’ve stayed at the shelter for longer don’t intend to cross the border to Hungary unless they absolutely have to. Many plan on returning home or at least as close to it as possible. Pavliuk understands them.
“Every morning I wake up feeling thankful for having had a peaceful night here (in western Ukraine). I have grown up here, I was born here, my parents and many generations before them have lived here. I can’t even begin to imagine leaving my home and my town just because some aggressor forces me to do so.”
Pavliuk deems witnessing the everyday life of mothers and children at the shelter particularly difficult.
“Most of the mothers are here alone with their children. Normally they live closely together with their husbands, and now the men are in the army. My heart hurts just thinking about them having to look after their children in a place they don’t really know. There are eight people living in each room, and they don’t know these people, even if now they’re slowly getting to know each other.”
Pavliuk sees a silver lining in the crisis: she says that the war and the consequential refugee crisis have made people work together in unprecedented ways. Just like Pavliuk, many people living in the border town of Berehove are citizens of two countries and cultures, and cohabitation hasn’t always been easy.
“I’m Hungarian by nationality, but I’ve lived on the Ukrainian side all my life, so I’m also Ukrainian. There have been disagreements between Hungarians and Ukrainians as well as other minorities in this area. I feel like things are no longer like that.”
Remote teaching started after pausing for weeks
Pavliuk says that before the war, people in her school were already looking forward to returning to business as usual after a long pandemic. Due to the war, the state of emergency in the school has continued. Already knowing how to teach and study remotely came in handy in late March, when the pupils in Berehove returned to remote teaching after a three-week break.
The children at the refugee shelter have been able to sign up for classes in Ukrainian schools in the town or continue studying with their own classes if their schools have been able to provide teaching. The children log in on classes in the computer classroom at the shelter.
Pavliuk’s Hungarian-speaking pupils stayed at home, as their school was still full of refugees. During the day, Pavliuk works at the shelter, and in the evenings, she prepares her English classes for the following day. She seems moved when she talks about her 12 to 18-year-old students.
“They’re teenagers. We have our ups and downs, but we can always find a solution to our difficulties. I love them.”
She already knows that some pupils have fled from Ukraine to Hungary and they won’t be coming back to her classes. Pavliuk takes a deep breath and looks around in her own empty classroom. What is her biggest wish?
“To be able to teach normal classes. I want to write on that blackboard and…,” she hesitates for a moment and starts laughing tiredly, “…yell at my students for not having done their homework.”
Finn Church Aid expands operation to aid people displaced by war in Ukraine
Finn Church Aid (FCA) announced on Monday that they are scaling up their response to the war in Ukraine by deploying staff in Ukraine and neighbouring countries and expanding their programs beyond immediate aid.
IN RESPONSE to the war, which has forced over three million people to flee Ukraine, FCA announced plans for a multi-country response that includes the deployment of staff to the Ukraine and Hungary. Currently, FCA supports Hungarian Interchurch Aid (HIA) who is assisting people in Hungary, the Transcarpathia region and in Lviv with food, water, hygiene items and life-saving medical equipment.
“Finns have donated generously to our response to aid those who have been affected by the war in Ukraine and we are responding now and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Our experience serving refugees in other countries, particularly in education, will be invaluable in assisting those inside and outside Ukraine, especially women and children,” says Jouni Hemberg, Executive Director, FCA.
15,254 people have already been assisted by the joint efforts of FCA and HIA by the delivery of seven million euro of life-saving medical equipment to Western Ukraine and 278 metric tons of food and other essential items to a number of locations where displaced people are located. HIA has established reception centres for those who have fled the conflict, both on the Hungary-Ukraine border and in Budapest.
“Some of these people have left their home in ten or twenty minutes – they have left everything behind. Their journey to Lviv and further has taken 24 hours or more. Some of the families have been living in shelters for days, even weeks. Their needs at the moment are acute – they are hungry, thirsty and exhausted,” says Ulriikka Myöhänen, FCA spokesperson, who has visited Lviv and other areas in Ukraine in the past week.
FCA is assessing more partners in countries hosting refugees from Ukraine
Staff from FCA will work in Hungary and Ukraine to support HIA with the management of the response, education in emergencies and communications. FCA is also assessing other partners so that they can expand their operations into other countries that are hosting refugees from Ukraine.
“We pray that peace will come soon but, even if it does, the war has already taken an unimaginable toll on Ukraine and its people. As experts in education, one of the things that we can do is ensure that children continue their education and we aim to find ways to do this for children who have been displaced by this conflict,” says Hemberg.
“All of them worry about the future, how to earn a living and how to get their children to school again,” says Myöhänen.
International Communications Specialist Melany Markham melany.markham[at]kirkonulkomaanapu.fi +45 9194 26709
FCA spokesperson Ulriikka Myöhänen ulriikka.myohanen[a]kirkonulkomaanapu.fi +358 50 576 7948 (on the ground in Ukraine and Hungary)
The Minister of Education & Sports in Uganda commissions Bukere Secondary School in refugee settlement
The First Lady of the Republic of Uganda and Minister of Education and Sports, Hon. Janet Kataaha Museveni, commissioned Bukere Secondary School, on 16 March in Kyaka II refugee settlement, Kyegegwa district, Western Uganda.
CONSTRUCTED BY Finn Church Aid (FCA) with funding from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), the school was built during the two years that schools were closed during the covid pandemic.
Speaking during the commissioning of the school, the First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports, Hon. Janet Kataaha Museveni appreciated how the United States PRM and FCA are helping to improve the quality education in the refugee settlements.
“On behalf of the Government of Uganda and in particular the Ministry of Education and Sports I want to congratulate, commend and applaud the US Government’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and Finn Church Aid not only for the outstanding achievement we are witnessing here today but for all the work they have accomplished to make a difference in the lives of people who came as strangers seeking asylum and who, because of their willingness to join us now, have hope for a bright future even when the time comes for them to return to their own homes,” she said.
Uganda hosts over 1.54 million refugees and asylum-seekers mainly from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi and hosts the largest number of refugees in Africa. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), about 60 percent of the total refugee population are children below 18 years.
“Bukere Secondary school will enable refugees and host community children and adolescents to attain quality secondary education. Kyaka II refugee settlement previously had only one secondary school to cater for hundreds of secondary school students within the settlement,” says Wycliffe Nsheka, Country Director, FCA Uganda.
The new school will accommodate over 600 students from senior one to senior four.
Education gives hope to refugee children
“Education is a major intervention in the refuge communities because it gives hope to refugee children and their parents … it brings a sense of normalcy to their lives. It also provides protection mechanisms for children in those challenging conditions. Above all, it gives children a stable foundation so they can achieve the full potential of their lives,” said the Minister.
The school was constructed under the LEARN Project, an education project for refugee and host community children and adolescents that is being implemented in Kyaka and Bidibidi, Palorinya refugee and Rwamwanja refugee settlements.
Under this project, FCA has constructed 72 classrooms, five libraries, nine science laboratories, five school administration blocks, 80 teachers’ accommodation units and 194 toilet blocks for teachers and students in these settlements.
Together with the Ministry of Education, FCA is the co-lead for education sector that coordinates the education response for refugees and host populations countrywide. Along with the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), FCA works with UNHCR and other actors responding to the needs of refugees in Uganda.
Finn Church Aid (FCA) announced on Saturday March 5th, 2022 that, in cooperation with Hungarian Interchurch Aid, they are establishing operations in the city of Lviv and in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine to aid those affected by the war.
AN APPEAL from FCA, the largest aid organisation in Finland, has so far raised euro 2 million for those affected by the conflict. Thousands of people from Kyiv and further east have fled towards the western city of Lviv where FCA’s partner, Hungarian Interchurch Aid (HIA) has established a base for operations.
“As Lviv has yet not been the site of military action, HIA and FCA decided that it was an ideal location from which to help people in Ukraine,” said Jouni Hemberg, Executive Director, FCA. “We have a long relationship with HIA working in other crisis and we work well together. We are already supporting their work aiding refugees on the border of Hungary, so when they decided to establish operations in Lviv, it was with our wholehearted support.”
As an immediate response to the people in Lviv, HIA is planning to meet basic needs with food, water, blankets and soap as they assess how to scale up the operation.
“Waves of displaced people are arriving day by day – by train, by bus, car. Most of them trying to flee to one of the borders. This is the first place where they can feel a moment of safety. Most of the people we have talked to here had to leave with only hours of notice. They packed whatever they could and left most of their belongings behind,” said Giuliano Stochino, Regional Coordinator, HIA, who is based in Lviv.
“It’s relatively safe and organised calm (in Lviv). There’s no panic, rather, an amazing level of humanitarian response to the needs arising. Everybody is trying to help in whatever way that they can, be that from the volunteers who are providing two or three meals at the train station or people working at the coordination points,” said Stochino.
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) 1.5 million people have been displaced by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and over a million people have fled across borders during the past week. An indeterminate number of people are displaced within Ukraine, including many migrants and asylum seekers from other countries.
“There is a huge need to scale up this response. We are seeing that people are staying longer; about ten to fifteen percent have declared that they will stay inside the country,” said Stochino.
“We will offer our support to everyone fleeing the conflict, targeting the most vulnerable and those most in need,” said Hemberg. “Over the following days and weeks we will continue to assess and adapt our operations to ensure that we help in the best way possible,” he added.
For an interview with Jouni Hemberg or Guiliano Stochino, please contact:
HELSINKI – Erik Nyström, erik.nystrom(at)kua.fi +358 5038 07250
FCA grants its first euro 1/2 million to aid Ukrainians affected by the conflict
Finn Church Aid (FCA) today pledged euro 1/2 million of its emergency response to aid displaced families in Ukraine and Hungary.
OVER ONE MILLION euro has been donated to FCA since the beginning of on the 24 February and the first part of the grant will help meet the basic needs, such as food, blankets and sleeping bags, of those affected by the conflict in Ukraine and refugees that have arrived in Hungary.
Hungary has received tens of thousands of refugees from the Ukraine. FCA funds Hungarian Interchurch Aid, which works both in Ukraine and Hungary, who is distributing 28 tonnes of food at the border area.
“There has been a profoundly generous response to our appeal for those displaced by the conflict in the Ukraine,” says Jouni Hemberg, Executive Director of Finn Church Aid.
“We are sending half of the funds raised directly to our Hungarian partner, who has established operations in Ukraine and Hungary. At the same time, we are assessing the needs of these people as to how we can help in the days and weeks to come.”
While FCA currently supports those affected by the conflict in Ukraine, it also has the capacity to meet long-term needs, such as food, sanitation, psychosocial support, education in emergencies and livelihoods through its membership of the ACT Alliance.
The need for assistance in Ukraine enormous. In a country of over 40 million people 3 million were already in need of humanitarian assistance before the current war. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that over half a million people have already crossed borders into countries neighbouring Ukraine. The need for assistance is expected to increase dramatically in the following days. Many of those who have fled describe the haste with which they left and their difficult journey.
“The women of my family have decided to take our children away from danger. We went where the car was taking us, I don’t remember most of the journey. My children were asking where are we going and I couldn’t come up with an answer. We heard that the Polish border is completely jammed, so we decided to cross the mountains and try to make it into Hungary. My sister is still on the way, I have no idea where she or my nieces are,” said Yelena, a mother of three children.
“We’ve been standing here at this border checkpoint for more than five hours, it is cold and my children are freezing. It is amazing to see that people are here to help, and even just talking to you gives us hope for a better future ,” she said.
Images of Ukrainian refugees by Antti Yrjönencan be found here -credit Finn Church Aid/Antti Yrjönen For more information or interviews, please contact Melany Markham +45 9194 2670 melany.markham[a]kirkonulkomaanapu.fi
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.”
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.”
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.
Viola Jabu was home schooling children and adolescents when schools where closed because of the pandemic.
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.
School-related costs, such as learning materials and school uniforms, can be too expensive for a poor family.
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.
“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.
Peter, the friend of 18-year-old Samuel (right), goes to school. In Yei, students stand out because of their uniforms.
“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.
Rose is preparing for the first exam week in 18 months.
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.
Quality vs Quantity: The challenge of providing education to refugees in Kenya
“The challenges are many.” It’s a phrase you hear often in East Africa and it rings especially true in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
CLOSE TO BORDERS of Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, Kakuma has harboured refugees from neighbouring countries for almost thirty years. It was established when a group of children, the ‘Lost Boys’, arrived from Sudan in 1992. In that year, Ethiopians and Somalis also fled to the camp after political crisis in their countries.
Today, Kakuma and the surrounding areas hosts a mix of nationalities and over half of the population is under eighteen. They are well served by the 26 primary and secondary schools in and around the camp. Such is its reputation for education, that children will walk for days from South Sudan to Kakuma to attend school. In November last year, three quarters of the 3,000 children in the reception centres had travelled to Kakuma to enroll in school.
The Kenyan Government welcomes them as best they can. Refugees in Kakuma are given a plot of land and poles and plastic sheeting to build a basic shelter. In Kalobeyei, a settlement thirty kilometres from Kakuma, they can build permanent homes, but this is barely enough to protect them from temperatures that can reach over forty degrees celsius.
Kakuma is located in one of the driest parts of Kenya and those who live there, even the local population, are dependent upon aid. Every year, new residents arrive, stretching resources further and further. In Kalobeyei, recently arrived refugees live among the local population. Established in 2016, the settlement is a departure from the Kenya Government’s earlier policy which discouraged refugees from working and integrating into the local population. In Kalobeyei, refugees and Kenyans live, work and study together. This is where FCA works.
Refugees crowd into classrooms
We operate eight primary schools for Kenyan and refugee children with funding from the Bureau of Population, Refugees & Migration, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland. According to UNHCR, 77 percent of children aged 6-13 there attend school, almost on par with the national average of 80 percent. But the number of students is ever increasing and challenges of operating crowded classrooms is no more evident than in Kalobeyei.
When school starts at 8am the temperature is already over thirty degrees Celsius. The air is full of dust and the shouts and laughter of children emanate from the classrooms. Inside the large, corrugated steel buildings, children are crammed four or five to a desk, overflowing onto the floor. Each class has at least one hundred students, some classes, close to two hundred.
Martin Albino Ayyiro was was a teacher in Torit, South Sudan, for twenty-five years, before conflict forced him to flee to Kenya. In South Sudan, his classes had a maximum of sixty students.
He now teaches at Future Bright Primary School and says,
“You cannot control the situation of the classroom because you don’t know who understands you and who doesn’t understand you,” says Ayyiro.
Teachers struggle to educate
In his classroom in Kalobeyei, Ayyiro often struggles to teach his students.
“… some children are very difficult, or they have problems. Maybe a child cannot come to school or can come irregular or (they) can come late to school. So, sometimes, maybe they are sleeping in the class,” he says.
Most of the refugees in Kalobeyei are also from Torit and, as a member of this community, Ayyiro not only speaks their native language, but often knows the parents, so he will make home visits . As a refugee teacher, he is not qualified in Kenya and so is paid as a volunteer (53EURO per month) in addition to the aid he receives as a refugee. Although he faces significant challenges, there are shared by everyone who works in the program.
Richard Tsalwa is FCA’s Project Coordinator in Kalobeyei and one of the first things you notice about Tsalwa is his eyes. They are kind, but tired. He oversees eight primary schools, 231 teachers and 21,000 students. He often talks about retiring to Kakamega, in Western Kenya, where he is from.
When Tsalwa began studying education, he was guaranteed a job. But by the time he graduated (1998) the Kenyan Government had stopped employing teachers because of a World Bank structural adjustment.
“We were the first class not to be posted. We all went into other jobs – some are bankers, some are businessmen. Some Kenyan teachers spend many years unemployed – up to ten years,” says Tsalwa.
When it comes to education, Tsalwa has seen it all. He has been a humanitarian for fifteen years and has worked in Nigeria, Sudan, Chad, Sri Lanka and, for the last three years, in Kakuma for FCA. “We have seen education changing the lives of these refugees,” Tsalwa says.
Giving every child an education is simple in theory, but in practice, ‘the challenges are many’, especially among refugee populations. Sustainable Development Goal number four is to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. The reality is that there is no single organisation or authority responsible for this. In Kakuma, the responsibility for primary and secondary education for refugees lies with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), however their primary mandate is protection, not education.
Funding cuts mean more students per teacher
Funding cuts in the aid sector mean that FCA has less money to pay teachers in 2022 – funds for next year are 40% less than in 2021 which means less teachers or smaller salaries.. “… if you reduce the teachers, the number of learners is increasing – there are new ones coming in … Right now we have a gap of 35 teachers and … we can only absorb (pay) these teachers just for six months,” says Tsalwa.
Beside teacher salaries, there are other costs of running a school such as teaching and learning materials, equipping children with special needs, supporting teenage mothers. The World Food Program funds school meals which for some children, is their only meal of the day.
As little funding as there is for primary education, there is even less for secondary. This results in high dropout rates. Among refugees aged from 14-17, only five percent attend school. This is lower than the rate in Turkhana County (nine percent) where Kalobeyei is located and well below the 38 percent national average.
FCA training refugees to teach
With so few refugees finishing high school very few are qualified to become teachers, but this is something that FCA is trying to address by providing scholarships to refugees to attend a new teacher training college close to Kakuma. Funded by UNHCR, the college has the capacity for one hundred students, and Mawut Wwor Chol is one of the first to attend lectures there. Originally from Ethiopia, Chol started studying at the college in October, but his journey to get there epitomises the challenges that refugees face.
Chol started Secondary School in 2011 and, due to ‘issues’, had to repeat his first class. During his exams for his school certificate the camp was ‘in a mess’. “There was infighting among the refugees. There was a fighting that messed up the camp and there was insecurity … I had sleepless nights. I would be watching from seven in the evening up to the daybreak and then I went to write the exam until I completed,” says Chol.
He failed his exams. “That made me bitter,” he says. Determined, he decided to repeat and was offered a scholarship at a school in Kitale, a large town in Western Kenya. This time he passed, but it still took him another year to find a job as a teacher in Kakuma. When he finally did, he seized every educational opportunity that came his way and has even completed a course with Regis University in the United States in March 2021. “Instead of going to Nairobi University or anywhere there, we are trying to get it piece by piece, so that we join the educated world,” says Chol.
If the challenges for men like Chol are many, the challenges for women are even more. The few who complete secondary school have very low grades, so finding qualified female teachers is very difficult.
“At ECD (early childhood development) the ratio is fifty-fifty, boys to girls. As you go up the grades, the ration decreases to about a third of girls in the classrooms. They leave school for many reasons – domestic work, looking after other children, pregnancy and early marriage,” says Tsalwa.
Women face more challenges
These challenges are something that Roda Daniel knows well. A refugee from Sudan, she fled to Kenya, alone, after primary school. Girls like her are particularly vulnerable, and so she was enrolled in an all-girls boarding school. This helped her to focus on her studies and she graduated and became a teacher. Now, she is the deputy head teacher at Morning Star Primary School (which is supported by FCA) and is one of the first students to study at the teacher training centre.
“Going to school from very early in the morning and coming out from here 5-5.30 you reach home six. With some females, like the lactating mothers, it becomes a challenge. What we came to realise, when the few were shortlisted, it was a qualification thing that meant most of females were not selected. Though many of us hoped to have this course, now, very few, very few are picked because of the qualifications,” says Daniel.
Despite affirmative action, that recognises experience instead of qualifications, Daniel was only one of ten female students out of sixty in the first intake at the college. Those who were ‘picked’ realise how lucky they are. When you walk into the lecture hall of the training college there is a palpable feeling of optimism. Although this might be said of any group of young hopefuls, but it is amplified by the challenges that these students have had overcome to make it here. “You see the hunger for education, especially among the South Sudanese,” says Dennis Wamalwa, the lecturer.
The education diploma offered at the Teacher Training College is a compressed course that takes just over a year, whereas a diploma in a public university takes between two and two and a half years. At the college, students learn onsite and online and the first intake should graduate in December next year.
Tsalwa is hopeful that the training college will improve the standard of education and teaching in Kakuma. “I hope to see well trained teachers (in 2022) who will definitely boost the quality of teaching and learning in our schools
… when we talk of quality, you can only talk of quality when you have trained teachers to deliver the curriculum,” says Tsalwa.
Tsalwa is also a realist and knows that once the refugees are qualified, they may leave teaching for other opportunities. He says that “… if you graduate in Kenya with a primary school certificate, you are well-qualified if you go back to South Sudan.”
“When you train them well, they get other jobs, because they don’t like teaching. They do it because they don’t have any other choice, so we have a high turnover of teachers,” he says. There is very little that can be done about this. Tsalwa knows himself how stressful teaching is even when they aren’t dealing with over a hundred students. Chol acknowledges this also, “I think it (the course) is a gateway for another opportunity.”
But Roda Daniel is different and illustrates why it is important to create opportunities for women. “With my mindset, I am still just within Kenya. And after graduating I will still see ahead if I will really get an opportunity to do a degree. Meanwhile (it is) still best teaching or supporting our community.”
Education is an assurance of future for refugee girls
Finn Church Aid (FCA) promotes access to quality education, particularly for girls and young women in Uganda’s refugee settlements.
EDUCATION IS A HUMAN RIGHT. It is essential to the acquisition of knowledge. More than that, education makes us more resilient and independent individuals. Finn Church Aid (FCA) promotes access to quality education, particularly for girls and young women in Uganda’s refugee settlements.
Education can have a life-changing consequences for girls especially. Girls like Anthias Poni Oliver. When violence broke out in her homeland, Anthias and her family were among thousands of South Sudanese who escaped to Uganda in search of safety and peace. Anthias lives in Palorinya refugee settlement in Moyo District, Uganda.
However, like so many girls with refugee background, it has been a struggle for Anthias to stay in school. While still in secondary school, she got pregnant and had to drop out of school for a while.
“Anthias’ father refused to take her back to school after finding out she got pregnant and had terminated the pregnancy. He told her to stay home and forget about school,” says Juru Cicilia, Anthias’ mother.
“I was sad because I loved school and knew I would not be able to complete my studies,” says Anthias herself.
Helping refugee girls stay in school
Education equips girls like Anthias with the skills they need to unlock their potential. Finn Church Aid ensures safe, inclusive schools with quality teaching for everyone with support from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migrations (PRM). FCA creates safe, environmentally friendly learning environments and school structures.
“With the support of Finn Church Aid, I was enrolled in Idiwa secondary school to complete my studies. My favourite subjects are Christian religious education and mathematics,” Anthias adds.
Making a study plan and managing her schedules, a skill she learned during a career guidance session, made her improve on her studies and catch up on lost time.
“Before I used to only read my books at school, but now I revise at home especially on weekends. This has really improved my learning.”
“They also give me school materials, soap and menstrual hygiene kits, and during the reproductive health lessons they teach us how to use the menstrual kits.”
Dreaming of future
Education is important to Anthias because it will create employment opportunities for her in the future. She hopes to be a doctor when she finishes school.
“I have seen many people in my area self-medicating and some have ended up dying. I want to become a doctor so I can be able to give them proper treatment,” she says.
Anthias’s inspiration is Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s wife.
“She was very hard working and never lost hope even when the husband was in prison. I hope to be like her.”
Ugandan youths and refugees trained in Business and Vocational Skills
Finn Church Aid with partner Enabel has provided Ugandan and refugee youth in Palorinya settlement with necessary business understanding and vocational skills to find opportunities for sustainable livelihoods.
The war in South Sudan forced Alex Lojuan, 27, to flee his home and settle in Palorinya Refugee settlement, located in Obongi district in the West Nile sub-region of Uganda. He is one of the 512 youth that enrolled for the GIZ-ENABEL funded project implemented by Finn Church Aid (FCA) in the Palorinya refugee settlement.
“My father died during the war and as the eldest child in the family, I had to take on the mantle of providing for the family. These were the hardest moments of my life, fending for a family in a foreign land,” Alex says.
Alex started laying bricks for income and later got the opportunity to work with Lutheran World Federation (LWF) as a casual worker, distributing soap to refugees during the monthly distribution of food rations and household items in settlements. While at LWF, he received information about the FCA Business and Technical Vocational Education Trainings (BTVET).
“As luck would have it, I was enrolled as one of the FCA business skills trainees. Although, I am yet to finish the business training course, what I have learned so far in the first two modules has instilled in me a positive mindset for success,” Alex says.
Enhanced youth employability
The project ‘Promoting Youth Employability through Enterprise and Skills Development’ (PROYES) began in October 2019 and ended in May 2021. It sought to enhance profitable employment opportunities for refugee and host community youths through skills training and business development support, by equipping the youth with demand-driven vocational and business skills for fluent transition into working life in employment or self-employment.
During the project, FCA trained and mentored young people in Business Start-up and Management and in vocational skills like hairdressing, sandal making, carpentry, tailoring and building construction.
Backed by the training and skills received from the FCA business class training, in March 2020 Alex started up a retail business with the money saved from bricklaying and casual work.
“I used my 300,000 Ugandan Shillings savings to start a retail shop in Odraji Village, Zone 1 in Palorinya settlement. Within seven months, my business capital had doubled. This is in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic situation that has affected most businesses,” Alex says.
“I run my shop with proper business principles learned during the FCA training. I have a business plan, I negotiate with suppliers to get the best deals, practice marketing of my goods, and deliver great customer service in my business,” he adds.
Alex earns a weekly profit of over 30,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) and with this money, he is able to take care of his extended family. He also bought bicycle for himself and put up a temporary structure that houses his retail shop.
Linking learning to earning
In a bid to increase employability chances of the youth trained, FCA provided start-up kits to the trainees who completed the course. The organisation also linked the trainees to available employment opportunities.
By end of the project period, 153 trainees, including 86 males and 67 females, were employed either by the private sector entities where they had attended industrial training or became self-employed.
Gordon Chiria, a 26-year-old Ugandan living in Obongi town managed to set up his dream business after the training.
“I used to grow and sell maize and other crops to support my family. This business wasn’t successful because I failed to maintain it. After FCA’s training, I started a retail business with a capital of UGX 300,000. Currently I make sales worth UGX 80,000 per day and much more on market days,” Gordon says.
Using his business profits, Gordon managed to buy two goats and support his family. He plans to expand his business to both retail and wholesale. “I appreciate Enabel and FCA’s efforts towards making the livelihood of Obongi community youths better,” he adds.
Focus also on young women’s skills
The project also supported female youths. More than half, 53 % of all beneficiaries were females that benefited from the six skills trades under the project.
FCA supported female participation by establishing four child daycare centres and also facilitated customised career guidance, counselling and life skills training to enable female trainees appreciate the trainings and build their resilience to complete the course.
Esther Kuyang, 25-year-old South Sudanese refugee came to Palorinya refugee settlement with her family in January 2017. “My family and I were depending on the limited resources provided by World Food Programme. The food rations provided were not always enough, yet it was quite hard to get supplementary food due to lack of a source of income,” she recounts.
“While I was still pondering about what to do to take care of my family, FCA came to my aid. With their support, I enrolled for a business entrepreneurship course at Belameling Vocational Training Centre,” Esther tells.
“I had previously been trained by FCA in sandal making. Due to the lack of start-up capital, I was yet to put that skill into practice. During the business training under the FCA-Enabel project, I learned that my real capital was my brain. I immediately started to think of ways to get capital to rejuvenate my previously acquired skills of sandal making.”
“In mid-July 2020, I got a loan of UGX 170,000 from my friend and bought some basic materials such as rubber, thread, beads, for starting a sandal making business. With the business skills acquired in the training like record keeping, marketing and proper accounting, my business started growing. Within two months, I grew my business capital to UGX 200,000. On average, I earn a profit of UGX 28,000 weekly. I am still paying off my loan and I will keep reinvesting the profits in the business. I am also saving with Vision Savings Group, our FCA–Enabel Internal lending group,” she adds.
Esther is the chairperson of the savings group that was formed in January 2020 under the support of FCA-Enabel project. So far she has saved 75,000 shillings with this group. She also bought a bicycle, which facilitates her movements. Esther plans to buy more tools and equipment’s for sandal making, especially those that she currently lacks. She also plans on expanding the business and opening more branches in other trading centres to generate more income.