Sixteen-year-old Grace fled her home in March this year after witnessing the brutal beheading of her father by the armed group Boko Haram, in Baga, Northeast Nigeria. “When my father was killed, we had to leave our town,” she recalls. “I thought that was the end of the road for me.”
But it wasn’t.
I met Grace in May at a camp in Maiduguri, in Borno State, where she is living with the remaining members of her family. Her mother is now responsible not only for Grace and eight of her brothers and sisters, but also for four of Grace’s cousins, whose father was killed in another attack. Grace worries about their predicament, she told me. But along with her concerns about her family’s survival, Grace is also desperate to continue her education.
When her family fled the city of Baga, Grace believed her quest to get an education had disappeared along with her home. However, Grace and other displaced children at the camp are able to attend the Government Secondary School Maiduguri thanks to ‘double shifting’ – a strategy promoted by UNICEF that allows displaced children to double up in the same schools as those of the host community in Maiduguri, without the huge numbers of children overwhelming the school’s capacity.
This mechanism ensures the best use of the existing school infrastructure, running two sets of classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, enabling children from both the local community and displaced families to access education. In total, there are 873 children from the camps and host community attending the same school as Grace.
One of Grace’s new teachers at the school, Ayodele Ponle, told me that although some of the displaced children are doing well, some of them seem disconnected and distracted. “Some saw how their parents were killed and painful memories make it difficult for them to concentrate,” she said. Ayodele believes that with time the children will improve and do better in class. She told me she was confident that a mix of learning, sporting activities and recreation would help to draw them out and help them to deal with their trauma.
Many Nigerian children have seen their chances of access to education undermined by conflict, displacement, deaths and family separation. As a result of the crisis, more than 800 schools in Northeast Nigeria have been damaged, burned, or looted, or remain occupied by displaced families who sought refuge in the classrooms. In Borno State, most school children have lost an entire school year.
Even before the flare-up of violence at the beginning of this year, Nigeria had 10.5 million out-of-school children – the world’s highest number – with more than 60 per cent of those children living in the north.
UNICEF is supporting education for conflict-affected children in Northeast Nigeria with a mix of strategies. As well as double-shifting, UNICEF supports teacher training, including a master training of trainers that covers life skills and psychosocial support delivery in the classroom; emergency preparedness and response at schools; and peace building. UNICEF is also providing school supplies and school bags, as well as large tents that serve as temporary learning spaces.
In Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States in the Northeast, nearly 40,000 girls and boys have gained access to education through UNICEF and its partners. Many of these children, unlike Grace, who had already attended school, are discovering what schooling is for the first time in their lives.
Some are not so fortunate. Grace misses her two elder sisters. She told me they ran into the desert the day Boko Haram attacked their village and killed their father. They have not been seen since. In a quiet voice and with tears in her eyes Grace told me, “I just wish they were here with me to continue their education.”
Geoffrey Njoku is a Communication Officer working for UNICEF Nigeria.