At Ocea village, Imvepi settlement, in the Arua district of northern Uganda, children run around, many busying themselves with games, especially football.
The teenagers hang around, some climb trees and sit overlooking roads leading to the settlements, while others gather playing cards.
According to the UNHCR, about two-thirds of the South Sudanese refugees fleeing to Uganda are children under the age of 18. “And this is a stark reality that’s facing many of these children that they may not be able to return home and continue with school any time soon,” says Charlie Yaxley, UNHCR Uganda spokesperson.
Mawa a teacher, arrived from Yei town in South Sudan in September last year as the on-off civil war raged between warring factions since December 2013.
He explains: “The current situation we face as youth in the community is we don’t get access to employment and money to buy basic needs.”
As the refugee population grew in Imvepi to 110000, thousands were of school-going age with no schools to engage them. “We sat down as a community and decided we needed to establish a school, because we realised that with no education, we would block or bury the future of our children.”
The teachers including Mawa, are from the refugee community and work on voluntary basis. “We have some trained teachers, but we are also being supported by former students, who completed secondary level, but they are few and the children many.”
Optimistic Mawa says: “We hope the children, many of them unaccompanied minors and orphans, are learning.”
Mawa says some of the children study under trees, open space and others under tents provided by the humanitarian agencies. “The children are enjoying the services even though we don’t have instructional materials and learning aids.”
Yaxley notes there is a real challenge in providing the children with adequate access to education. “Severe underfunding means that there are not enough teachers, there are not enough school materials, the classrooms are lacking and some classes number more than 200 pupils.”
Due to funding shortages, the World Food Programme has cut down on food rations and this has not spared teaching programmes. “The children are so many, yet we completely have no feeding at the school, they stay hungry and when they return home for lunch, they return late which affects learning.”
Some are lucky if they even get food at home. Makuach John, another teacher, says through World Vision, the food they get is not enough to sustain them for a month.
“One person gets 3kg of beans and 12kg of sorghum, so when you don’t have soap, you sell the food to get soap and many children have skin diseases.”
Angela Rugambwa fears not engaging the young population will cause problems. “It’s time for the international community to invest a lot in the education livelihood support for the youth.”
She added: “Education will engage the youth so that they are not idle and are not thinking about any other forms of engaging themselves that would cause harm in the communities they live in.”
The UNCHR during the Uganda solidarity refugee summit in July this year appealed for $674million (R9billion) for this year alone. The UN Refugee Agency has only received 21% of this.
Yaxley stressed there was an urgent need for the international community to come forward with both political and financial support to Uganda. “This is in order to ensure that we can provide these refugees with the education they so richly deserve.”
Just as in many refugee settlements in northern Uganda, the refugee children are at the mercy of Mawa and his fellow voluntary teachers to gain whatever little education they can get.