March 21, 2018

Refugee children from Burundi's civil war are so happy to be in school

Nella, 16, now feels safer than she did in Burundi

Billy Briggs

Education in emergencies writer

The conflict has left thousands traumatised and alone - but some students who fled to Tanzania have told how education has given them hope.

Refugee children who lost their parents during violence in Burundi’s civil war have spoken about how education is helping them to rebuild their lives.

Since the conflict began in 2015, more than 250,000 people are estimated to have fled into Tanzania and neighbouring countries – many of them unaccompanied children. 

Some were orphaned during the fighting, while others become separated from their parents and relatives during an arduous journey to safety.

Burundi is one of the world's poorest nations and is struggling to emerge from a 12-year civil war. Since independence in 1962, it has been plagued by tension between the usually-dominant Tutsi minority and a Hutu majority.

New unrest was sparked in 2015 by President Nkurunziza’s plans to stand for a third term. He has been in office since 2005.

Tanzania hosts more than 155,000 refugees from Burundi, with children making up half of that total. Many of them have been left traumatised and thousands are at risk of being abused, trafficked or recruited into armed groups.

Larissa, 16, wants to finish school and become a teacher

Photo credit: Plan International

Thousands are being helped by Plan International, which works in three camps in northwest Tanzania. It has set up set up child-friendly spaces for over 10,000 children in partnership with the European Union. 

Child-friendly spaces are safe areas where children can play, learn and overcome anything they may have seen or experienced.

Plan International also counsels children and tries to match families with orphaned or abandoned children and young people. 

Unaccompanied and separated children are recorded and emergency foster families are identified to host and care for them. The fostering scheme is meant to be a temporary situation while the families live in camps. 

Over the longer term, Plan International Tanzania aims to trace children’s parents and reunite families, where possible.

Some of the children in Tanzania have spoken about their situations and how education has given them hope.

A 12-year-old boy called Bernice said: “There is a difference between here and Burundi. Here I am getting food and a place to sleep and I’m getting care from my foster parent.

I have a foster parent providing care for me and I go to school here too. It makes me very happy. I’m in secondary school now and I desperately want to finish my education.

Nella, 16

"It helps me feel safer here. I want to finish my education. I am in school at the moment. If I am still living in the camp when I finish school I want to work for Plan International and help the other refugee children at the child-friendly spaces.”

Nella, 16, said her life was improving in Tanzania. 

“Right now I feel safer than I did when I was in Burundi," she said. "Before I would struggle to sleep at night because I didn’t feel safe but here I can actually sleep for a whole night. 

"I have a foster parent providing care for me and I go to school here too. It makes me very happy. I’m in secondary school now and I desperately want to finish my education. After that I hope to become employed. My big dream is to be a doctor.”

Another 16-year-old girl called Larissa said she hopes to become a teacher.

She added: “I used to see people fighting in Burundi. Now here it is different but I wish I could find things I need like essentials for women and girls. 

"Because of the lack of necessities some of my friends go into marriage so they can have the support of a man.

Refugee children are at risk of abuse and exploitation including trafficking, sexual exploitation and recruitment by armed groups

Photo credit: UNICEF

"If I finish school I will be a teacher. If I become a teacher I will work hard to make children have a good future. I wish to be in any place in the world where I will find peace so I can pursue my dream.”

Elsewhere in Tanzania, some 1.9 million children are in need, according to UNICEF. In its latest report it said 396,173 people from Burundi - 54% of them children- have sought asylum in neighbouring countries, mainly Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The United Nations children's agency added : “The sociopolitical situation in Burundi continues to deteriorate and exacerbate movement of population and humanitarian needs. 

"The number of internally displaced people registered in 18 provinces continues to decrease and stands now at 175,936, of which 58% are children.”

Education for out-of-school children remains a major concern and challenge inside Burundi - especially for children on the move, including 29,300 refugees, 33,400 returnees and 80,300 internally displaced. 

UNICEF said there are currently more than 450,000 children out of school.  The agency has provided support to 2770 children (1107 girls and 1063 boys), to pursue their schooling through the distribution of learning materials and a catch-up programme.

As of February 2018, there were more than 208 newly-destroyed classrooms in 105 schools due to flooding and landslides, preventing around 15,000 children from pursuing their schooling. 

The child protection environment in Burundi continues to deteriorate as the social and economic situation is worsening, UNICEF added. 

Its report in February said: “Children are facing combination of protection challenges, with concerns over the number of children living and working in streets and children dropping out of school. Around 5000 children repatriated from Tanzania and more than 3000 child refugees from DRC are in need of support. 

“In the current context, all these children face significant protection risks of violence, abuse and exploitation including trafficking, sexual exploitation and recruitment by armed groups.” 

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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