Dianne Denton is an Education Advisor with Plan International Canada. She focuses on education in emergencies and has provided technical support to programs in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Egypt, South Sudan, and Uganda.
As I walk into a temporary classroom in the Gado refugee community in Eastern Cameroon, what strikes me most is the noise. The students greet me with an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.’ I look to the blackboard at the attendance records – 187 enrolled, 180 present. Another class: 230 enrolled, 215 present – always more boys than girls.
Packed classes are the rule, not the exception for schools in refugee communities. But these numbers are staggering. Children are perched five to a desk, while others kneel on the floor. Those in the back rows stand up in an effort to see the board. Community members tell me that still, there are many more children not in school.
Almost all of these children come from the Central African Republic (CAR), where a forgotten war rages on. Conflict broke out in 2013, and since then, more than a million people have been displaced and thousands killed. Cameroon hosts about 248,000 refugees, of which 63 per cent are children. But of the approximately 156,000 children who should be in school, only 20 per cent are. Despite the staggering needs in the East and Amadou, most donors have redirected funds to the far North of Cameroon, where Boko Haram militants have caused huge influxes of refugees from Nigeria and internally displaced Cameroonians. The needs are staggering there too, but funding shortages make providing every child with quality education all but impossible.
Plan International, with support from UNICEF, has set up learning spaces where over 9,300 refugee girls and boys are able to enroll in primary school or an accelerated learning program.
When I sit down with parents and community leaders, they tell me how much they value education. They share with me how education not only provides safety and security for children fleeing conflict, but also hope for the future. They explain how happy they are to see their children learning to read, write, and speak French.
But when classes are overflowing and teachers are overstretched, the quality of education suffers.
We are at a critical moment for these children. In the humanitarian sector, we are used to searching for innovative, creative solutions to complex problems. But what is needed in Adamawa and Eastern Cameroon is just more – more teachers, more classrooms, more textbooks, and crucially, more funding.
These schools need reliable, stable, multi-year funding. The average length of time that refugees stay in exile in protracted crisis contexts is over 20 years; unless the situation in CAR improves dramatically, we can expect most of these children to grow up in Cameroon.
The schools that Plan International supports only have funding for seven more months. The government-run schools in nearby communities don’t have the capacity to accommodate 9,300 extra girls and boys. Transitioning children from temporary schools to government schools is a good idea, but it will take time, planning, resources, classrooms, and a positive learning environment. We must work in partnership with government and civil society to develop long-term, smart strategies to meet their educational needs for years to come. Now is the time to double down with funding and support, not to pull back.
The schools should stay
I say goodbye to the head of the School Management Committee in Gado, and he shakes my hand. ‘Don’t leave,’ he says, ‘the schools should stay.’ I tell him that I agree. I tell him that we will do our best to find a way for their children to stay in school.
But we won’t be able to deliver unless we are all willing to do more for these children.
We can and must do more.