I’m not long returned from a trip to eastern DR Congo where I was visiting Children in Crisis’ work with young Burundian refugees.

These teenagers, many of whom are unaccompanied minors – separated from their parents and siblings – have fled an unfolding and worsening crisis in their country.

It’s a lesser known crisis, one that hasn’t hit the headlines. Indeed, Burundi is a lesser known country that few have heard of, but what’s abundantly clear to me, from visiting the refugee camp and spending time with the young Burundian refugees with whom we’re working, is that this unfolding humanitarian crisis is no less important.

Since the crisis in Burundi first erupted two years ago, ignited by the unconstitutional and deeply divisive decision by incumbent President Nkurunziza to run for a third term, Burundi has been thrust into political and economic turmoil. Government crackdowns against opposition movements, suppression of the media, an increase in violence and extrajudicial arrests – have resulted in upwards of 260,000 refugees (the majority women and children) having fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania, DR Congo and Uganda.

Those that have fled to eastern DR Congo, some 16,000 of them, are living in a refugee camp on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

We have supplied over 1,000 school kits and uniforms. What became clear during our conversations with Burundian students is that, apart from the clothes they were wearing when fleeing their homes, these uniforms are the only other clothes that they own

Since November 2015, Children in Crisis alongside our dedicated local partner, Eben Ezer Ministry International (EMI), have been working predominantly with young people from this camp and with head teachers and teachers from the surrounding Congolese secondary schools. These schools, whilst doing their best to accommodate the young refugees, are struggling.

To this end, we’ve thus far supplied much-needed teaching and learning materials to the host schools to accommodate increased enrolment. We provided just over 1,000 school kits and uniforms – responding to the very real needs of these young Burundians who have fled, literally with the clothes on their back. We’ve applied our extensive pedagogical expertise to provide much-needed training to Congolese teachers from the host schools to help them respond to the changed classroom environment that the refugee crisis has brought, and we’ve established drama clubs for refugee and non-refugees alike, helping young people to express themselves and make sense of the situation they find themselves in.

There was something particularly undignified at seeing teenagers – on the cusp of adulthood – forced to sit on makeshift benches more akin to what one would find in a nursery school.

Children in Crisis’ focus on education – both formal and non-formal – in this emergency context, is essential; it is also a mammoth task.

It is essential for the following reasons:-

  • At a time when young people are facing the toughest of times, uprooted from friends and family , going to school and maintaining their education provides some precious normality and stability in their lives.
  • In refugee situations, as has sadly been played out time and time again, young people are far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation; the risk of recruitment into militias is a very real one, and girls in particular are at greater risk of sexual violence. The protective function that going to school plays in such situations can’t be understated.

But the task, as I mentioned, is a mammoth one.

With the crisis in Burundi showing no signs of abating, refugee numbers are predicted to increase.

The host Congolese secondary schools, even before the refugee crisis, were woefully under-resourced.

School buildings are small, cramped and dilapidated and there is a need to construct new schools and classrooms to cope with the doubling, in some cases, trebling, of enrolment.

In one of the schools I visited, Institute Lokololo, the head teacher had taken the initiative to rent an additional building to accommodate increased enrolment of refugee and non-refugee students, but the school lacked the means to furnish the school and, as a result, students were reduced to sitting on planks of wood or on upturned bricks on the dirt floor. There was something particularly undignified at seeing teenagers – on the cusp of adulthood – forced to sit on makeshift benches more akin to what one would find in a nursery school.

The planks which make for benches used by teenage students at one of the host Congolese schools (photo taken by Burundian students)
Temporary classrooms have quickly fallen into a bad state of repair
A Lusenda school toilet

And these teenagers – like teenagers the world over – are bright, articulate, creative, intelligent, proud individuals.

Each that I spoke too had ambitions and hopes.

Each were clearly deeply anxious and troubled by the situation they find themselves in.

Each had harrowing stories to tell of what forced them to flee.

Children in Crisis and EMI are the only organisations responding to young people’s secondary educational needs at this time. We can and must do more to respond to the plight of these young people; with over 10 years skills and experience working in the region, in the field of education and with displaced communities, we know what to do and how best to do it, in response.

A photo taken by Burundian students who borrowed our camera to show us their school and friends

How we would like to help

If we are able to secure the necessary support. this is what we will do:

Increase the secondary school premises available in Lusenda

The current situation is untenable. We are currently drawing up plans to construct a new school building.

Address the gap in out-of-school activities for young people

 This will be for young people of secondary school age (both in and out of school) and in a way that combines several different goals, such as :

  • boosting intra-community cohesion
  • providing young people with positive ways to spend their free time (reducing the risk of them being attracted to anti-social and harmful activities)
  • creating ‘edu-tainment’ opportunities through which important public health and protection messages relating to early marriage, sexual and reproductive health can be communicated to other young people and the wider community.

Teacher training

We will also provide support to schools to establish enterprises; enabling them to generate a school income & increase resources such as classroom furniture and learning materials (which are currently at a very low level and which will need maintaining into the future).

The establishment of school enterprises would also enable young people to learn enterprise and business skills. Such skills would be highly relevant to young Burundians at this time, helping them to offset any dependency created as a result of their refugee status.

Advocacy & support

We need help in order to sustain our activities in the longer term. We need advocates and supporters to raise awareness of the plight of these young people and of this little known crisis that is unfolding in this little known country on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Read more

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