Peacekeepers give children the gift of education and a brighter future in war-torn South Sudan
The South Sudanese flag flies proudly above the tiny school on the outskirts of the capital Juba.
The roof to the concrete block classrooms is propped up by pieces of wood, there are a few rickety desks, and the blackboard is well used to say the least. Despite the dire limitations of this learning environment, it is a vast improvement on the situation a few years ago when children were forced to attend lessons outside.
“It has been very challenging from the beginning because we started from scratch,” says Exodus Academy Principal, Sokiri George. “There were no classrooms. Children were learning under the trees. Some were sitting in the dust. There were no proper books for instruction and the pupils didn’t even have books for writing.”
Exodus Academy serves a community that relies on casual work and subsistent farming. They work just to survive. There is no money left over to pay school fees. Here, education is a luxury that most families cannot afford.
The children gather together in the schoolyard to share their desperate desire to learn through song.
“I need education, but school is not for poor guys like me,” croon the teenagers. “You call me a street boy, but I’m just in the street trying to find food. You call me a street girl, but I’m just in the street trying to find food. "
Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth’s father was killed during the civil war. She wants to be a pilot when she grows up but, without financial support, that dream may never be realized.
“Just pay my school fees, please, for me to continue my education. My mum has no job. It’s only me struggling for myself to pay my school fees.”
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan has a base not far from the school. For the past few years, peacekeepers have provided what support they can, creating a football field and playground, installing a water bore, providing desks, books, and engineering support.
The latest initiative is the production of a special book using photos and inspirational quotes from the children to raise funds to pay the fees of orphans and children in single-parent families, to provide food, books and improve the classrooms. All proceeds from the Young Voices of South Sudan book, which can be bought online as well as any donations, go directly to the children’s education.
Australian peacekeeper Captain Stephanie Palfrey-Sneddon is the driving force behind the project which she’s led in addition to her official duties as a staff officer in UNMISS’ Joint Operations Centre.
“Working for the United Nations has been a dream of mine for a very long time. But to work for such a large organization sometimes it feels as if we are not able to reach the people that we are here to work alongside,” she says.
“To be able to be involved in the community, make friends with the teachers, the staff and to get some pearls of wisdom from some of the students has been an absolute highlight of my time in South Sudan.”
Accessing education has been even more difficult for the children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools were shut down for months to prevent transmission of the virus although some students refused to let that interfere with their learning.
Captain Palfrey-Sneddon says the children are driven by a deep desire to have the opportunity to realize their dreams – something she and peacekeepers from more developed countries took for granted growing up.
“There is such a strong message of the power of hope, peace and love in the quotes they’ve provided for the book. I’ve been incredibly inspired by how passionate they all are about their education,” she says.
“There was one time I visited before school was able to open and there was a young girl, Charity, who was in one of the classrooms in her school uniform, ready to go, just waiting for restrictions to lift. She was just sitting in this empty schoolroom reading her books, which I thought was testament to her strength and optimism.”
This team of peacekeepers is looking at how they can continue to help these children, and others at nearby Queen’s Nursery and Primary School, reach their full potential and make a contribution to rebuilding their country in the aftermath of a devastating civil war.
“Education is the only way for any country to develop. Our progress, as a nation, depends on education,” says Principal, Sokiri George. “To reduce every minor evil of society like crimes, wars, it’s only when the nation is educated. Without education, we will continue in conflict forever in this country.”
For these children, it’s about living a life where education is not a privilege, it’s their right.