My Experience: Realities in Ethiopia
My first overseas posting, my first refugee camp, my first “real” job, was as Education Coordinator in Ethiopia for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). I was to be responsible for providing thousands of Eritrean, Sudanese, and Somali refugee children a chance to return to school and, hopefully, to a more normal life. I was thrilled, yet terrified. Having read up on the harsh conditions facing these children—many of them orphans—I feared that all of my preparation and training would be of little help in the face of the realities on the ground.
The refugee camps were meant to be a haven for those who had fled violence, deaths of relatives, and destruction of the only homes they knew. Most of these people had lost everything in the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Now, three years later, they were stranded in the Shimelba refugee camp, prohibited by Ethiopian law from working or even leaving the crowded settlement and dependent on international aid to survive.
As I traveled to Shimelba in June 2003, I envisioned myself making a difference by offering thousands of traumatized children hopes for the future in the form of an education. As I was to learn, however, it wasn’t that simple.
In a four-hour drive to the camp, we passed villages consisting of mud huts without running water or electricity, where women walked several hours each day bearing loads of firewood and jerry cans of water. I had always taken the lack of water is the single greatest obstacle to development in Ethiopia
water for granted in the United States. Yet, the lack of water is the single greatest obstacle to development in Ethiopia. This is one of the first lessons I learned about education in Ethiopia. Instead of being in school, girls and young women can spend up to four hours a day trudging to river beds and springs to collect water. Is it any wonder then that, by the time they reach grade four, there are 20 percent more boys than girls in school?
As I was thinking about water, our driver suddenly announced that we had arrived. Having expected television images of war-weary refugees squatting under donated blue plastic sheets, my first surprise was to discover that there were no tents. In fact, had the driver not made his announcement, I might have mistaken the camp for just another local village. It appeared to be in the middle of nowhere and was a dusty, dry piece of land that the local community previously used for grazing. The lack of water and fertile soils had left it uninhabited—until the arrival of 10,000 Eritrean refugees. There were children everywhere; most appeared to be school-aged.
A few days after arriving, I had my first meeting with the 34 teachers at the camp, in a mud brick school room with a hay roof. The five women teachers sat behind the male teachers, who spoke on the women’s behalf. I was accompanied by the IRC’s Education and Community Services Manager, Shewaye, an Ethiopian woman who had defied all cultural barriers to live in this remote area for three years. She had been hired to support the refugees’ efforts to erect a temporary school and re-establish education for their children. When I asked her why there were so few female teachers, she patiently explained that these were the only women the community could identify who were schooled beyond grade four. Even these could not stay long at the meeting because there was water to fetch, firewood to haul, wheat to grind, homes to clean, and families to feed.
After introductions, the teachers gave me vivid descriptions of how they had started the school. They had begun as volunteers, giving lessons under a tree with the ground as their chalk board and stones as teaching aides. With IRC support, students were now sitting under a tin roof on school benches with exercise books, pencils, and student textbooks.
But after spending a day looking in on classes, I had noticed there were far fewer girls in school. School records indicated that by grade three, 40 percent of pupils are girls. These numbers drop, however, with each passing grade. I asked the teachers why.
Although the men started to answer, I politely asked if one of the female teachers could respond instead. After some confusion—and an awkward silence—a woman explained to me that most girls drop out at grade three, age 11 or 12, to get married. Until these young brides have female children themselves, they are responsible for all domestic chores, such as cooking and collecting wood and water, as well as money-making enterprises like weaving fans. They have no time for school, I was informed, and their parents do not think education is necessary to being a good wife and mother.
We later strolled through the camp and stopped in some refugee tukuls, the local name for the mud huts they called home. Of the women we talked to, none were literate or educated. Almost all indicated that at age seven—the time when the government begins enrolling children for first grade—they had to stay home and care for younger siblings. But I learned that it isn’t only these responsibilities that keep girls out of school. Some poor families send their girls to work as domestic servants, making it impossible for them to attend classes.
And, there are other barriers. In separate discussions with refugee youth, for example, one girl expressed her embarrassment at going to school when her “blood started to flow.” Normally, girls do not go out in public when they are menstruating. They also do not have materials for their period, with even rags difficult to come by in the camp.
After a few days in the camp, I had become humbled by the obstacles girls face in becoming educated. I realized there were no simple solutions or magic formulas for ensuring equal access for all refugee children to schooling. The simple act of building a school was not enough to overcome the cultural, economic, and social barriers keeping so many girls out of the classroom.
Despite those barriers, small steps by IRC have made a difference. Only just a few years ago, 98 percent of adult women in the camp could not read or write and had never attended school. By 2006, however, many of them were sending their daughters to the IRC school. About half of the girls in the camp are now attending classes. It isn’t as much as we would like, but it’s a vast improvement since the school opened in 2001.
IRC has also begun pre-schools in the camp, to help relieve girls from child care responsibilities. Girls and women at Shimelba now have access not only to education and basic learning materials, but also to feminine hygiene products.
And, gradually, they are being made aware of the importance of education. More importantly, they have aspirations. On my last visit to the IRC school earlier this year, I asked a couple of girls what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Teachers or doctors,” they told me.
My first real lesson in humanitarian aid was that refugee camps were not only places of destruction, destroyed lives, and despair. These girls proved that despite the obstacles they had faced—if given the chance and some encouragement—they could aspire to roles that would help their communities, and inspire future generations of girls. Listening to them, I knew I would never again take for granted how easy life had been for me, including going to school, or the simple act of turning on a faucet to get water.
Jennifer originally told her story to Oneworld.net in Fall 2006.
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