From extraordinary to ordinary
Under a clear blue African sky that is both humid and green at the same time in Gambella Regional State is where thousands of vulnerable South Sudanese refugees have found shelter. Many have escaped conflicts and hardships crossing the border to Ethiopia helping the later embrace a tradition of welcoming destitute refugees from nations such as Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan. Many have escaped dictatorships; war, hunger, violence and a slew of issues into a nation that has welcomed more refugees than the whole of Europe combined.
Like the thousands that have come to Ethiopia from South Sudan, the majority of these refugees are school aged children and women. Ngugyyiel camp, where The Reporter recently visited is spacious, protected and full of aid organizations playing a role to bring some order to a life interrupted and is full of young children running around, being schooled in shifts and making their extraordinary lives ordinary.
This is where seven year old Jeffery has lived since coming here in 2017. He has spent almost his quarter of his young life here. His nation gained its independence the year he was born. The narrative of his life was supposed to be different within Africa’s newest nations but it was not to be.
That particular year was supposed to end the impasse that had crippled his nation, a resource rich society in the midst of man-made deadly conflicts that have killed thousands and made many refugees. The lives of his parents had been filled with misfortune, having been prosecuted for their religion in the Muslim-dominated Sudan. He was not supposed to inherit the misery of a generation just above and be forced to walk for hours looking for safety in a nation that was foreign to him and his parents.
Since 2014, Plan International Ethiopia, a children’s focused charity organization, as part of its South Sudan Emergency Response Program has been the forefront aid organizations making a profound impact to the lives of many, including that of Jeffery’s. Aware, the journey of his and many others was not one of choice but circumstances, the reputable aid organization with decades of work in Ethiopia and across the world has given light to many young lives, most importantly through the power of education.
Plan International has been operating four refugee camps in Gambella – Kule, Pugnido-II, Ngueyyiel and Jewi camps, including the Pamdong refugee reception site. As part of its work in the area, it focuses on child protection, education, youth and early childhood care and development.
At one corner of a makeshift refugee camp was a number of adolescent girls who had assembled to take part in a learning exercise on how to build beautiful necklaces. Beyond the making of rich, colorful accessories out of beats donated by the charity organizations, the lessons learned, the experience earned was to help them learn to co-exist and also, as a bonus, to have them have entrepreneurship sprits, in a camp that is most often dominated by the spirits of charity.
“I moved here six months ago,” a 16-year-old told The Reporter. “I have been provided with safe space, been given practical trainings and I aspire to further my education. I am thankful to Plan (International) and others.”
Since the beginning of 2016, more than 100,000 refugees have fled to Ethiopia from South Sudan in their region, making the area a hub for refugees from neighboring nations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, Ethiopia is now host to an estimated 388,000 refugees from Africa’s newest independent nations, most of them in the region of Gambella.
“Plan International’s vision in the country is to make sure vulnerable children are provided the essentials to achieve their dreams,” Dessalew Adane, the Emergency Response manager told The Reporter. “As such, we try to provide them protective, reliant and resilient communities”.
"Education in an emergency is quite different from the regular education program. We start with rudimentary education services, sometimes even under shade of trees until we get prepared for accidental influxes of refugees we encounter, Dessalew said. “It is difficult to avail all the needed resources at a time including teachers.”
Within Gambella, Plan International is involved in four refugee camps and in five similar camps in the Benishangul Gumuz Regional State.
The demand to education to the flowing of school age was overwhelming. The idea was not to focus on the luxury side of education at the beginning but its end – the access of it was what was urgent.
“Gradually, we upgraded the classrooms to the conventional types and increase the number of subjects from the basics to all through time once we ensure access,” Dessalew concluded.