Every day more refugees pour in to Gambella escaping the violence in South Sudan. To address this humanitarian crisis, Plan International has been busy during the past four years trying to help the innocent victims of violence by building schools in Gambella and educating over 13,000 elementary school children.
Capital’s Reporter, Tesfaye Getnet spent a week in Gambella and visited Dessalew Adane, the Emergency Response Manager of Plan International Ethiopia to learn how the refugee children are being educated and their psychosocial needs addressed. Dessalew Adane, has a Masters in Public Health; he has spent 14 years working in program management for several governmental and International Organizations including: Save the Children, World Vision and International Medical Corps. Here is what he had to say about making the best of a bad situation. Excerpts.
Capital: What major activities are you doing to benefit South Sudanese Children in Gambella refugee camps?
Dessalew Adane: Plan International’s overall goal in Ethiopia is to ensure that vulnerable children, especially adolescent girls, and youth are able to realize their full potential within protective, reliant and resilient communities which promote girl’s rights and gender equality. Similarly, the Gambella Program Area of Plan International Ethiopia is operating in 4 of the six refugee camps in Gambella Region and in five similar camps in Benishangul Gumuz Region. Half of all the refugees in Ethiopia are found in these two regions. The refugee camps established in Gambella Region where Plan International operates include: Kule, Pugnido II, Ngueyyiel, Jewi and the Pamdong reception site. The camps in Benishangul Gumuz Region are Tongo, Gure Shembola, Bambasi, Tsore, Sherkole and Abramo Reception Center. As Plan International is a child focused
organization, our activities include education in emergency, early childhood care and development, child protection, and youth engagement. Each of these major thematic areas are further structured and carried out through well designed strategies and activities. For instance, we address protection needs through established child friendly spaces, Community Based Child Protection Mechanisms, Child Protection Mainstreaming, and Accountability Mechanisms. The Education in Emergency and Youth Engagement thematic areas have their own school or facility based and community based structures that keep the interventions functional and ever improving. In general the activities keep the children safe and protected, entertained, help them acquire academic knowledge, along with psychosocial and life skill development services.
Capital: We have heard that many teachers are working in the school without the required documents; how is recruitment conducted?
Dessalew Adane: The South Sudanese people fled their home and country to save their lives. In such a circumstance, let alone documents, family members are separated as their departure is accidental and there may not be a possibility to get prepared and organized. As a result, it is common to encounter people without proper documentation including academic credentials. Taking the context in to consideration, we recruit teachers and other incentive social workers by providing exams to check if they are knowledgeable up to the grade level they claim to have attained. They are also are provided further trainings once recruited.
Capital: How do you reduce dropout rates among refugees?
Dessalew Adane: We have established different structures in the refugee camps. There are mothers in the school who follow up with students on a daily basis are who are in close communication with teachers. When a child is absent, they contact the family and identify the reason. They deal with the problem either by themselves or via referral as per the need. If the issue is beyond their capacity, they may contact the Parent-Teacher association for help addressing the problem. If there are still advanced problems, the refugee central committee may also become involved. We have several hierarchical structures which resolve teaching-learning related problems including school dropouts.
Capital: How come you only provide five subjects when many elementary schools have more than six?
Dessalew Adane: 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. It is difficult to avail all the needed resources at a time including teachers. Education in an emergency is not only a venue to educate children but to keep them safe in a protected environment. Gradually, we upgrade the class rooms to the conventional types and increase the number of subjects from the basics to all through time once we ensure access.
Capital: How are the parents of the children working with you?
Dessalew Adane: Parents actively participate starting from the time they send their children to school. Some are members of ‘mothers in the school’ who take care of children while in the school. Others are represented in Parent-Teacher Associations of each school and support us in administering the school. In general we have very strong linkages with parents in every aspect of the teaching learning process and the other interventions as well.
Capital: There are a number of NGOs who are working with the refugees. How do you avoid duplication of efforts and wastage of resources with other agencies by doing similar interventions?
Dessalew Adane: There is a clearly demarcated responsibility matrix for every organization working in refugee camps assigned by ARRA and UNHCR. We are either engaged in different thematic areas if not each of us are responsible for a specific camp where another similar organization does not operate. We are linked with referral pathways for complimentary services between different agencies. Therefore, duplication of effort and wastage of resources is avoided in such a way and via periodic coordination meetings.
Capital: How are you helping to address the psychological and psychosocial needs refugees have?
Dessalew Adane: Refugees may have passed through traumatizing hardships while escaping the war and fleeing their home. These situations may expose some to stressful mental conditions and they will need psychosocial and other advanced specialized services. We have a much tailored approach to identify children with different needs of protection with a clearly categorized level of priority for response. The primary objective of our child protection intervention is to address such service needs. Plan International Ethiopia provides para-psychosocial support using trained social workers and case managers. When we encounter cases that should be addressed through specialized support, we link them to other partners via established referral pathways.
Capital: Rape, child labour and other violence are some of the challenges of refugee children. How do you help them deal with this?
Dessalew Adane: The first action we take is to raise awareness on violence among adolescents and youth. This minimizes the incidences by changing behaviour of potential criminals and providing coping mechanisms for those vulnerable, especially adolescent girls. For instance, girls are advised not to go far from their camp with a person who is not a close family member; to travel in group when they go out to collect fire wood or carry out other activities. We also provide para-psychosocial support and referral service as a response to girls exposed to such violence. There are various case reporting and community based complaint management mechanisms established by Plan International.
Capital: Tell us one of the saddest stories you encountered while you had been working with the refugees.
Dessalew Adane: It is unfortunate to commonly encounter children who are unaccompanied and don’t know anyone, let alone a relative. We search for volunteer care givers from the refugees and handover such children to a family they do not know as there is no other option to keep the children safe. It is so sad and hard to see a child below two years of age abandoned and to watch his eyes wandering eagerly seeking his family.
Capital: What are the major challenges you face here?
Dessalew Adane: The major challenge is limitation of resources to secure quality and sustainable services for refugees. As refugee crises are worsening in many parts of the globe, attention of donors is shifting to save lives in those newly emerging humanitarian disasters. As a result, it has brought a major challenge to mobilize sufficient resource to protracted refugees like the one in South Sudan.
Capital: What is your future plan in the camps?
Dessalew Adane: We have the experience on how to build good classrooms in a very short time. Those schools in which we have been managing for years are in much better condition when compared to the recently opened ones. We don’t have sufficient class rooms for all school aged children. Furthermore, we haven’t been able to make all the schools the same standard due to limitation of resources. Our plan is, therefore, to expand the accommodation of the schools for all school aged children and reduce the number of students per classroom to an acceptable ratio. So far, we have created access for only 50% of school aged children. In addition, we would like to upgrade those class rooms with iron sheet walls to the conventional standard classrooms we built in the older schools. We need to improve the different facilities in the school as well. There are also various improvement needs in the protection and youth engagement sectors that demand huge resources, especially those in the five camps of Benishangul Gumuz which we took over recently. We are striving to secure resources needed through our 22 national offices found all over the world. We also continuously search for innovative approaches to address the needs of children in an ever improving efficiency and effectiveness. Apart from the refugee response, Plan International has taken some initial steps to address developmental needs of Ethiopian communities in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz who reside in adjacent districts where refugee camps are established. We would like to expand these interventions integrating with the refugee so that demands of both sides are dealt with.