BIDI BIDI, Uganda — At this kindergarten on the edge of the world’s largest refugee camp, there are no notebooks. When it’s time to practice writing skills, children sit under a tree to doodle in the dirt while teachers use a blackboard.
“Maybe this term we will provide the books,” said Kevin Afura, who teaches at the school for 500 children operated by the aid group Save the Children. “They write on the ground.”
Schooling is the latest challenge in this overcrowded refugee settlement where basic facilities like toilets are in short supply. This school’s only classroom is a tent in which dozens of kids swarm an overwhelmed teacher. She soon releases them to the playground, where they either swing and slide or simply go home.
One recent morning, parent Reida Yeno pointed dismissively and said the children like her 4-year-old son are falling behind in their studies: “They are just only playing.”
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The sprawling Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda is home to over 270,000 refugees from neighboring South Sudan’s civil war, most of them women and children. There is an urgent need to keep the thousands of children in school despite funding shortages that have slowed the pace of humanitarian work, including a reduction in food rations for some refugees.
This month Uganda hosts a United Nations-backed summit at which it hopes to raise global awareness of the crisis. Ugandan authorities have said they need about $2 billion as thousands of South Sudanese continue to pour in.
In Bidi Bidi, the children often have to walk long distances to the nearest school in the roughly 230-square-kilometer (88.8-sq. mile) settlement. Absenteeism is high, and other students have dropped out.
At Ombechi Primary School, supported by Uganda’s government, head teacher Olega Drangu said some children attend in tattered clothes. Pencils and notebooks are few. Temporary classrooms have been battered by heavy winds. Drangu’s office is in a decaying classroom block that local government engineers recently condemned as uninhabitable.
Drangu said he hesitates to be as strict with refugee students as he might be toward locals. When a refugee child heads home at lunch break and doesn’t return for afternoon classes, he said, it’s probably because there was no food at home.
Nearly half of Ombechi Primary School’s 1,470 students are refugees from South Sudan, where tens of thousands have died in often ethnically targeted violence since December 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people have poured into Uganda in the past year, creating what has been called the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.
One of the South Sudanese students is 17-year-old Lilian Mercy, who will sit her final examinations later this year. Yet she despairs over the lack of notebooks, which makes her return to old ones to find empty spaces in which she can scribble notes.
“They brought for us these 96-page books but it’s not enough for us,” she said, referring to Windle Trust International, an aid group that is implementing education programs with the support of the U.N. refugee agency. “Even now they are getting finished.”
Julius Ochen, the education settlement manager for Windle Trust International in Uganda, said that so far 82 temporary schools have been set up in Bidi Bidi. But the unending refugee influx means classroom congestion is a common problem, with a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 200 in certain schools.
“We need quite a lot. We need permanent buildings, and the sanitation is not good,” he said.
Despite the challenges, some teachers report quick improvement in students who once couldn’t communicate in English.
“After one month they are better,” said Afura, the kindergarten teacher. “Now if you ask them, ‘How are you?’ they will know.”
The young refugees also know how to reply, though the word is insufficient for their bewildering new lives: “Fine.”