Refugee students want 'a future after all the trauma they've had'

This story appears in the Seeking Refuge feature series. View the full series.

by Melanie Lidman

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A girls' boarding school in northern Uganda is providing real-life lessons in adjustments for both South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan students.

The St. Mary Assumpta Girls Secondary School in Adjumani purposefully mixes classes to better incorporate the new arrivals, said Sr. Anna M.A. Apili, the school administrator and member of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church congregation, which runs the school. Of the 704 students, 320 are refugees who have arrived since 2014.

Shared tribal language and culture give the refugees a sense of belonging, though all of the students are encouraged to speak English since not all students are from the same tribes.

Apili said that first year was the most difficult, when some of the South Sudanese students resorted to violence to "punish" girls they accused of telling lies.

"Now we have a student association for South Sudanese to solve their problems internally," said Caleb Mutungi, the school's director. This means meetings where South Sudanese students can discuss their problems separately from the Ugandan students.

The school also tries to discourage early marriage, which is more common in South Sudan than Uganda and even more common in the camps, because families are so desperate for cash from dowries. Additionally, the school systems are different, with South Sudan following the Kenyan model and Uganda following the British model, which means the South Sudanese students are usually older by three or four years.

But in most other ways, the South Sudanese are considered regular students, including running for class elections. Last year the valedictorian, who spoke at graduation, was a refugee. "The students all do well because they're focused, they're not distracted because they're here," said Apili. "They want to make a future after all the trauma they've had."

Some of the refugees were also soldiers, which has compounded their trauma, Apili said. "We found out one girl was an army commander because when she got angry, she would command the other girls," she said. "Sometimes the girls are a bit wild. They have been brought up in a war."

The school doesn't have enough resources for individual counseling, even though many of the refugees are traumatized by their experiences in South Sudan, and as they fled to Uganda. Apili said she tries to find external funding for especially troubled cases, and the school organizes a counseling week each year to talk about the importance of mental health.

But she has also found that providing them with an educational framework of a residential boarding school gives them stability that is lacking in their life, and options for the future.

"Life here is difficult, but it has its advantages," said Martha Akuol, 17, a native of the Jonglei state in South Sudan, who has been in Uganda for four years and dreams of being a surgeon. "If we stayed in South Sudan, we wouldn't be studying."

Akuol is one of the student leaders for the school's South Sudanese Student Association, and said that, despite the best efforts of the school, there are still times she feels like an outsider. "If you quarrel with a Ugandan, they say, 'Well, you left your country!' Those are really retaliating words."

Akuol said she appreciated the way that Uganda has hosted so many refugees, but she wishes the rest of the world would follow suit.

"You should treat refugees as regular people," she said. "Instability doesn't only affect one country."

One of Apili's main jobs is to secure funding to cover the tuition for refugees, which comes from international organizations such as the Windle Trust. Even with the support, the school is able to provide secondary education for only 320 refugees; thousands more unable to attend simply because there are not enough schools.

In Tandala, a camp near Adjumani, there are just two primary schools to serve 5,000 school-age children. Each primary school has accepted 1,000 students, with 200 students in each classroom. Those are the lucky ones. More than 3,000 children are at home, or spend mornings gathered under a tree at "community schools," informal classes run by former Sudanese teachers unable to transfer their certification to Uganda.

But after primary school there is nothing. The Ugandan government is hesitant to set up higher-level schools because they don't want to encourage refugees to stay longer than is immediately necessary.

"There's a glaring gap of secondary education, there's simply nothing after primary school," said  Jesuit Fr. Kevin White, the country director of Jesuit Relief Services. "We know what happens when youth are idle. There are pregnancies, alcohol and drug abuse, and sometimes they are even going back to South Sudan to fight, just because they're bored."

Tabea concurs, and offers a potential solution. "We need to educate the refugees, but higher studies is too expensive for us to fund [for everyone]," she says, but adds, "We want to have an online learning center for brilliant refugees."

[Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Israel.]