Saturday, August 18, 2007

So I’ve finished a month of teacher training at Sherkole Refugee Camp. It was nice to get away from Adwa for a change, and it was also good to be doing something as immediately rewarding as full-time training, rather than the coordinating, planning, talking, feedbacking, and hoping-something-comes-of-it of Cluster work. And I loved working with the teachers.

Despite the ongoing repatriation of refugees to southern Sudan, Sherkole Refugee Camp is not shutting down, but is the designated camp to hold those who cannot return home from other camps, as well as newer refugees coming to Ethiopia all the way from Darfur and from Great Lakes Region countries like Congo and Burundi, where there continues to be war and instability.

Many teachers from southern Sudan have been repatriated, but the school is remaining open (and even using this opportunity to reduce class sizes from 70 and 80 to 30 and 40), so a lot of new refugees have been hired as teachers and have been teaching for a few months to a year. Almost all of them have no training (that’s where we came in), and most of them have only Grade 10 or even Grade 7 or 8 education themselves. They follow the Sudanese curriculum, and teach in English, but many of them also have very limited English themselves.

According to the teachers (it’s the summer break, so there were no students to know for sure), there are a lot of behaviour problems at the school, including people coming to school drunk, fights and threats against teachers, and just plain not listening and not working – very different from Ethiopian schools. These problems are aggravated by having children and adults in the same class, and by many of the teachers being very young (18, 19, 20) and having to teach people their age or much older. Trying to help the teachers imagine solutions to some of these problems was difficult to impossible.

According to some of the people in charge, there are also lots of problems with the teachers not coming to school, not planning, having very limited skills, and - as we observed first-hand with a couple of teachers over the training - coming to school drunk or drinking themselves. (My judgmental self found this a little hard to cope with.)

Among our group of 33 teachers, there were 2 women. There are big problems of low enrolment and high drop out rates among girls, so that by Grade 8, last year, there were 117 male students and 10 female students. Gender-based violence at the camp is also a big problem.

Sherkole Camp has been around for ten years so it’s established, kind of like a village. People live in tikuls (mud huts, like most Ethiopians), not tents. They get monthly rations, and if they work in the camp, as teachers, for example, they get an “incentive” as well. Most people are surviving, but walking through the camp, you see a lot of children with sticking-out-tummies and orange hair.

Most of the teachers have terrible stories of how they came to be at Sherkole, and they have lost a lot along the way. In various people, we could almost see the weight of their pasts and of their lives hanging over them. Sometimes, it was hard to know if our expectations for them as teachers were unrealistic. And sometimes, it was hard to know what to do or how to be, how to help people within the limits of the little bit of their lives that I’m knowing them for.

So now that I’m away from the camp, when people ask me how it was, I can say it was a good experience, or an interesting experience, and I’m glad I had the chance to go. This is true. But at the same time, it was a hard experience, bringing up a lot of my own self-doubts, about how to help people and care about people without getting lost in their problems; witnessing the shortcomings of the international community in caring for refugees; and making me question even more what is next in my life, how can I be involved in helping refugees or other vulnerable people? and how can I not?

What I know is how fortunate I am, that I had the chance to go to Sherkole, and then I had the chance to leave again. This freedom, and sense of security, that I really have taken for granted in my life, is one of the big things that separates me from the people of Sherkole, or any refugees, and the injustice of this is overwhelming.

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