On a hot, dusty day, hundreds of students pour out of their makeshift school, notebooks in hand. Looking at the smiles on their faces, it could be any after-school scene, but these students have all been displaced from their homes in Darfur, Sudan. They have been living in camps set-up for internally displaced people in the region.
"My family had to leave our village last October," says Anwar, an eighth grade student at Hessa Hissa camp in Zalingei, West Darfur. "The first nine months we were in this camp, there was no school and nothing for us to do. I had lost all hope."
In July, nine tents were erected on a mound in the center of the camp to serve as a school for the approximately 23,000 people who are temporarily living there. It was a welcome gift to the students who had gone months without any access to education.
Today the school is serving 2000 students, in two shifts. During the morning shift (9am to 2 pm) there are 600 girls and 400 boys in grade levels four and five. Classes are co-educational. The afternoon shift (3pm to 7pm) caters to 1000 older children in grade levels six to eight.
There are currently 41 teachers, most of them were displaced themselves and previously taught school in the villages that they had to flee. The classes are crowded, with 60 or more kids in a class, sitting on the bare ground.
"The conditions are not good," says Abrahim Minaway, Headmaster of the Hessa Hissa Camp School. "But at least it is a start."
Students are being taught the basic standard curriculum, and despite the interruption in their education should be able to take their qualifying exams and get back on track. Courses include mathematics, science, geography, history, Arabic, English and Islamic studies.
Anwar is very happy to be back in school. "I want to be a doctor when I grow up, so I was very sad when I had to miss school. I was afraid I would miss too much and never get to continue my studies. Now we are being taught all the required courses so I can take my exams."
Mercy Corps has been working to help support three camp schools in Zalingei by providing basic school supplies such as exercise books, pens and chalk. In addition, Mercy Corps has provided recreational equipment including soccer balls, basketballs, volleyballs and nets for physical education and after school activities.
Mohammad, a fourth grade student at Hessa Hissa camp did not like school before he had to leave his village, but now he feels differently. "Before, I always tried to find an excuse to miss class, but now I look forward to it everyday. We cannot leave this camp, so without school there is nothing to do all day but worry about the future. Now I have something else to think about."
In addition to the basic curriculum, the school is also offering recreational activities such as volleyball and soccer. Both the girls and boys play. Boys generally play soccer and girls like to play volleyball.
"It is a great relief for the boys and girls to get out and just play," says Abubakar Khamase Ismail, who is a math teacher and soccer coach at Hessa Hissa camp. "With sports activities it lets them forget their problems for a little while and be kids."
Despite the start of the school, many needs and challenges still exist. There are not enough classrooms, and currently only grade levels four through eight can attend. There are not enough books (in some classes 150 kids share just 30 books), and there are no desks, stools or furniture.
"We are lacking in everything," says Headmaster Minaway. "We need more tents to allow all the children in the camp to come to school, we need more money to pay the teachers, and we need books, supplies and uniforms. We have started but there is so much more need."
Mercy Corps is continuing to assist the camp schools in Zalingei. Future education/psychosocial programs for children may include providing additional desperately needed school supplies and transportation for the teachers to reach the schools, as well as the development of an after-school youth league.
"I am happy to be back in school," says Anwar. "But my younger sister is not able to come because she is just in the second grade and there is no class for her. I feel bad when I go to school and she is left with nothing to do, and I worry about the future. When I am finished with this year, there is no ninth grade class to go to."