In September 2011, Hilal Primary School at the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya was a few tents without walls, scattered across open fields. Children crowded under roofs that sheltered them from the scorching sun as they took their lessons.
Refugees themselves, they had fled Somalia amidst a wave of more than 150,000 people who arrived at the complex of camps over a period of 12 months. Located some 80 kilometers from the common border with Somalia, the Dadaab camp complex covers a radius of about 20 kilometers, and is now home to nearly 453,000 Somali refugees.
But one year later, the school site is hardly recognizable, according to a story from Lutheran World Information, the information service of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
Today, there are four times as many buildings on the site and classrooms that were once only tented roofs now have walls. Inside, children sit at desks with textbooks in front of them, writing in exercise books. One year ago, up to 40 children shared a single textbook and, due to a shortage of desks, many sat on the floor.
And the changes don’t end in the classroom. After school, children rush into the playground to play on the swings and slides and take turns drinking water from the taps supplied by boreholes.
Both the taps and the play equipment make a huge difference to their health and happiness. The clean water supply not only ensures the children have enough to drink. It also means they can wash their hands, a precaution against ailments such as diarrhea, which can be lethal in a vast place like Dadaab.
The playground is open to the students all day and, as the compound is fenced and guarded, the children have a safe haven after classes end for the day. Children can be especially vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse in Dadaab and safe spaces like the school playground keep them out of harm’s way.
Over 2,000 children attend Hilal Primary School, which is operated by the LWF, a founding member of ACT Alliance, the global network of churches responding to emergencies.
The LWF collaborates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as an implementing partner, and is the lead agency in camp management at Dadaab.
Thirteen-year-old Mahado and her little sister Aminao, aged three, are both students at Hilal. They arrived in Dadaab seven months ago and have been attending school ever since.
Back home in Somalia, Mahado had never been to school, so today they share not only the same classroom but the same desk. She sits with her arm protectively wrapped around her younger sister’s shoulders as they take their lessons together. Mahado says her favorite subject is English and she hopes to become a teacher herself one day.
Sitting happily at the desk together, it is hard to understand the magnitude of the difference the school has made to their lives. The emergency in 2011 that forced Mahado and Aminao to flee Somalia caused widespread malnutrition among children and women. Lack of access to water and poor sanitation and hygiene exposed them to disease, and many were subjected to physical and sexual abuse as they made the journey from Somalia, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
LWF staff Moses Mukhwana said the education projects operated by the LWF in Dadaab are by far the most important in the camp. “By providing a safe place where children can learn we solve many other problems,” he said. “Building schools is important, but it’s the dedication of our teaching staff who, despite increasing insecurity, turn up to teach almost every day, that makes the most difference to the students.”
The LWF runs six schools at Dadaab and employs over 500 teachers-some Kenyan and some refugees themselves.
The completion of schools such as Hilal means that there are even more places in classrooms for the 250,000-odd school-aged children living in the camp. The classrooms, textbooks, playground equipment and boreholes are funded by UNICEF.
Despite the success of the LWF’s education projects, there are still thousands of children in the camps who don’t go to school, many of who live in larger, more crowded camps. Over the next six months, the LWF is hoping to relocate many of these families to the more recently set-up Kambioos camp, where services like education are available.
Education is one of the most significant ways that aid funding can positively impact a child, now and in the future, and in that sense at least, Dadaab is no different from anywhere else in the world.
The LWF’s work in Dadaab is carried out through its Department for World Service (DWS) Kenya-Djibouti country program, operational there since 1991.
(Written for LWI by Melany Markham in Dadaab, Kenya.)