Darfur’s War Children

After a decade growing up as refugees, education is offering hope to thousands of boys and girls

Zamzam camp, North Darfur, 2015: The childhood memories of Maryam Ahmed are threadbare and fading – but they are not forgotten. 

The 16-year-old still remembers where she comes from, a small village called Konjara deep in the countryside of North Darfur. She remembers the farms most of all, but recalls little else.

She also remembers why she had to leave. “It was because of the conflict,” she says simply.

In a region where thousands of childhoods have been sullied by war, it is an explanation which has become terribly mundane.

Maryam has now become one of the Darfur’s War Children – boys and girls who have spent most of their lives living with the consequences of Sudan’s conflicts.

Now living in Zamzam camp – a huge settlement for internally displaced people (IDPs)in North Darfur –she has spent the past ten years growing up as a refugee in her own country.

And yet thanks to the UNICEF-supported education programmes in the region, she is being given an opportunity to enjoy the rights which so many children sometimes take for granted.

Building for the future

There are approximately 200,000 people living in Zamzam, a huge camp about half an hour’s drive south of El Fasher, the North Darfur state capital.

Within the camp – a sandy city of round tukul huts, mud-brick walls and winding alleyways – there are nearly 19,000 school-age children.

UNICEF has supported the construction of over 26 schools in Zamzam camp. For girls and boys like Maryam, this has provided a lifeline to a more stable and secure future. She can now enjoy one of the most fundamental rights – the right of every child to an education.

As a pupil at Al-Salaam 18, she gets to study her favourite subjects, mathematics and Koranic studies. Eventually, she hopes to become an engineer. “I want to study engineering because I would like to contribute to the building of our country,” she says.

It is an ambition which, in Zamzam’s education system, is not beyond the realms of possibility.

According to Mohamed Ahmed, the government’s director of education for Zamzam, the camp has some of the top schools in North Darfur.

In the most recent examination results league tables, one of them – Al Salaam 38 – came sixth overall for the whole state, said Mr Ahmed.

“This high achievement is down to the support from UNICEF and Plan Sudan,” he said, referring to the organisation which has helped implement the school-building programme.

“We have high competition here,” he added. “There are five other schools which are also very successful, but not like Al Salaam 38.”

“We’re happy with the results”

Mr Ahmed said that North Darfur is divided into six educational districts. Zamzam comprises one of these districts, and ranks second most successful in the whole state, he said.

“We feel very happy with these results,” said Mr Ahmed. “Over the last year the schools have been celebrating these big achievements.”

According to Abdullah Adam Mohamed, head of one of Zamzam’s parent-teacher associations, these results are partly due to the strong competition between schools in the camp.

He added that Zamzam has an enviable track record on enrolment rates. “Almost all the school age children here are in school. The ones who are not often come from poor families.”

According to Abdullah, around five per cent of children aged six-16 are not enrolled. Some have parents who cannot afford the 15 Sudanese pound ($2.50) monthly fee, he said.
Others come from areas of the camp with large populations of newly arrived families. There are about 4,000 such children who have entered Zamzam this year, he added.

Facing the challenges

“We already need additional schools for the new arrivals. We’re waiting for permission to build from the ministry of education, but we need five new schools.”

The issue of education for girls is not a problem in Zamzam either. There is a roughly 50-50 split throughout the camp, said Mr Ahmed – 9,604 boys and 9,203 girls.

Like many other areas of Sudan, retention of pupils can sometimes be an issue. Often it is related to poverty, or perhaps orphaned or abandoned children who do not receive encouragement to go to school.

“If there is a problem between the parents, this can create problems with the children,” added Abdullah. “Sometimes, if the parents divorce, the child goes to stay with either the mother or the father. It means they do not stay in one place and may find it difficult to go to school.”

There are other challenges. Zamzam is the only camp in North Darfur open to new arrivals. It means overcrowding can become a problem, said Mr Ahmed, with lessons sometimes taking place with more than 100 pupils.

In addition, resources are limited. Students have to work sitting on floor mats, while textbooks are often shared among three pupils.

But despite the challenges, thousands of pupils like Maryam Ahmed have been able to benefit from an education thanks to the assistance being provided by UNICEF with sustained support from the European Union (EU) and Qatar’s Educate a Child (EAC) fund, who have been key contributors to basic education in the Darfurs.

And more than anyone else, Maryam is aware how essential such a kick-start in life can be.

“I like going to school for my education,” she said. “Education is one of the most important things in life.”