In a Mauritanian refugee camp, young people are guided from illiteracy to online training

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In southeastern Mauritania, just 50 kilometers from the border with Mali, is the Mbera refugee camp. In 2012, when the war in Mali began, thousands of people fled to neighboring Mauritania in search of the safety their country could not provide. A decade later, refugees are still arriving at the camp. Although the war officially ended years ago, ongoing terrorist activities in the region force thousands of people to flee to neighboring countries every year to live in peace.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Mauritania hosts 89,790 refugees and 4,541 asylum seekers, of whom 79,656 live in Mbera camp, according to UNHCR data from July 2022. one of the largest refugee camps in the country. West Africa and the second in terms of the number of Malian refugees hosted.

A large proportion of the people living in Mbera camp are minors: around 40,000 are under 18 and most are of school age (around 34,000). But only around 30% of the youngest children attend primary school and an even smaller percentage (in the 12-17 age group) attend secondary school. According to UNHCR data, in the 2020-2021 school year, only around 5,570 children were in primary school and 410 in secondary school (figures barely affected by the coronavirus pandemic).

Although refugee children are consistently less likely to be in school than other children (the overall rate of refugee children in school in 2020 was 77% in primary and less than 32% in secondary), Mbera, the rate is abysmal. , and among the lowest in the world.

For girls, the inequality is striking: only three out of ten pupils are girls.

Refugee children have the possibility, in theory, of being educated in the camp or integrated into the Mauritanian school system, thanks to a recent government measure authorizing this possibility. The schools in the refugee camp, set up by UNHCR and UNICEF, follow the curriculum of Mali, where teaching is in French but, to facilitate their integration into the host country, Arabic is also taught. .

Vulnerability and insufficient human and material resources

School enrollment rates are low among children and adolescents in Mbera camp due to both a lack of infrastructure and a lack of human resources: there are only eight schools and a shortage of teachers. “If all [potential] students showed up at school, we would not be able to welcome them”, sums up Apollinaire Gérard, project manager for the Connectivity Division. A large part of the teaching staff is also made up of refugees themselves and only 23% of teachers have qualifications officially recognized by the Malian government. It also affects the quality of education, according to a study provided to Equal times by Save the Children Spain.

And given the level of poverty and vulnerability in the camp, for many families sending their children to school is not a priority.

When children finish primary school, or even before, they begin to help their families, either by working or doing household chores (in the case of girls). “Many families are cattle herders and travel with their cattle to different villages where there is pasture. Although they are registered at the camp, the shepherds travel with their children, which makes schooling difficult,” explains Gérard.

Girls tend to drop out of school earlier than boys because parents often prioritize boys’ education if they cannot afford to send all their children to school. Frequent child marriages and early pregnancies are another reason girls have to drop out of school early.

Koranic schools, or madrassas, occupy an important place in the Muslim culture of the region. Children between the ages of five and eight attend these schools to learn the Quran. Some madrassas also teach Arabic and mathematics. This education system is considered sufficient by many Muslim families, who see no advantage in sending their children to formal schools. As a result, many children do not enter primary school until they have completed Koranic school or are not enrolled in UN-run schools in the camp. The problem with madrassas is that most of them only teach the Quran. If children do not learn French, which is the administrative language in Mali, this reduces their chances of integrating into the school system of their country of origin (or that of their parents) and, later, of find jobs requiring a high level of qualification.

To improve children’s health and the schooling rate, NGOs such as Save the Children finance school canteens offering students one meal a day. The idea is to encourage parents to send their children to school more regularly. Rising food prices since the end of 2021 have led to a 44% rise in some food staples, such as oil, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. And the most vulnerable families are finding it increasingly difficult to feed their children.

It is also increasingly difficult for them to pay for school materials. This has been even more marked during the pandemic. The Covid-19 epidemic forced lessons to be improvised via radio or social media, but less than 20% of households in Mbera camp had a radio, television or smartphone with access to Internet.

Online courses and technologies, a passport to the future

In terms of education, it is mainly UNHCR and UNICEF that set up and manage the schools in the camp. Together with Save the Children Spain, these two organizations have set up a computer center called Connectivity Centre, which offers refugees access to the Internet and training in new information and communication technologies (ICT).

The Connectivity Center is a large room with computers and free Internet access that allows young people and adults to access the outside world and online learning. Save the Children, in collaboration with UNHCR and UNICEF, is also training teachers, literacy workers and education counselors in the use of technology in education. A hundred high school students take computer classes at the center every week. This gives them access to a computer and 3G in a context where computers and smartphones are rare and where power cuts and the impossibility of affording Internet access are the norm. Young people living in these circumstances have a keen interest in technology and the Internet and regularly attend the center. They know that being proficient in ICT will improve their CV and expand their job opportunities.

“Thanks to this center, I discovered the world of computing. I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer before. Now I can search for information, prepare my lessons and do training. I obtained a number of certificates, thanks to international online courses, on subjects such as human rights or migration,” explains Mohamed Ali Ag Mohamedoun, a French and history teacher at the camp. Mbera.

The center also encourages people to take free online courses offered by various organizations. In an area where there are no universities and the nearest of which is several days away, being able to access university education free of charge is an invaluable learning opportunity for these young people.

They can, for example, access platforms such as US-based Coursera, which offers free courses from the best universities in the world, allowing them to study remotely, from the refugee camp, and build a better future.

“I have 13 certificates, some of which are related to the world of work and other subjects such as the management of water policies, humanitarian law or development. I am convinced that the Connectivity Center is a vital opportunity for us refugees,” says Mohamed Issa Ag Oumar.

“Some young people have never seen a computer”, explains Gérard. Young people from the nearest village, Bassikounou, about twenty kilometers from the refugee camp, also come to the center to have access to a computer and the Internet. In the two years since the Connectivity Center opened, hundreds of people in the refugee camp have been able to learn computer skills and access the Internet. The success is such that several institutions are studying the possibility of opening another Connectivity Center in the city of Bassikounou, to offer the Mauritanian population similar access and opportunities.

This article has been translated from Spanish.

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