In this article JRS West Africa shares interviews with refugee students, their parents, and teachers who had to find innovative ways to guarantee they could continue pursuing their education despite the limited resources when schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Soumaya is a 20-year-old student at the Lycée (high secondary school) in Djabal refugee camp. She has lived there for 16 years. Despite setbacks to her education when her school closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Soumaya kept herself motivated and disciplined with her studies. She plans on becoming a doctor.
How did you manage to study when the school closed due to COVID-19?
“I don’t have a telephone or radio to follow the courses in remote mode. At the beginning it was difficult, but we were given textbooks and that made everything easy. We were also divided in working groups that consisted of children with smartphones and those without smartphones. I was also able to go to my teacher’s home to ask questions about the subjects. Teachers were also invited to come to our homes to teach a small group of students. The month I spent without a textbook, I could only read the notes I had taken in my notebook in class. COVID-19 prevented me from learning many things.”
Did you have to perform any duties at home apart from studying?
“I cooked and went out for water and timber. I also cleaned the house. I managed to organise four hours of study per day, two in the morning and two in the evening.”
Who is supporting your education?
“Only my mother, but she has vision problems and couldn’t help me. My father is in Sudan and I haven’t seen him for years. My mother is the only one who takes care of my two brothers, my two sisters and me. She pays our food and school expenses. I also work in construction to help.”
How did you feel when the school opened again?
“I was happy because my education is important to me. It was easy to go back to school because I had studied a lot at home.”
Do you know what you would like to do in the future?
“I would like to become a doctor. There are challenges at home, but I will prioritise my studies because this is my future.”
Izzadine is a 19-year-old student at the Lycée (high secondary school) in Djabal refugee camp. He has lived there for 18 years. He takes pride in the fact that school closures didn’t prevent him from working hard and utilizing new forms of learning such as smartphones and WhatsApp groups. Izzadine would like to pursue a career in administration.
How was your academic year affected by COVID-19?
“With COVID-19, schools around the world closed, also the ones in Chad. Some of them were closed for three months and we had to switch to remote learning. We studied with radio Sila (a community radio in Goz-Beida), WhatsApp, and working groups. I have a smartphone and WhatsApp was the channel I used the most during the school closure. We did exercises and sent a photo to the teachers. Some students participated in these remote courses, but others didn’t have the proper resources such as mobile phones. The students with smartphones were grouped with those without. It was the first time we experienced such a crisis, but we managed to come out with our heads held high.”
Did you find it difficult to study remotely?
“All these systems were not easy, but if you are committed, you can succeed. Arab and Philosophy were taught by radio and that was challenging, because you didn’t have the opportunity to ask questions to the teacher. Another obstacle was the low quality of the connection or the limited gigabytes to upload and download the images. Teachers did their best to help us. It was also the first time we learned remotely and that wasn’t easy. We were very surprised at the beginning, but JRS accompanied us and offered WiFi at the JRS learning centre.”
Did you feel prepared for the BAC exams?
“The courses helped me a lot to prepare for the BAC exams (secondary school final exams in the French system, which is compulsory to attend University). However, we couldn’t study all the chapters due to the closure of schools and they appeared in the BAC 2020 tests. I thought I did well, but my marks weren’t good enough. So, I am taking the BAC exam again this year.”
Do you know what you would like to do in the future?
“I want to study General Administration at University, but my financial resources are limited.”
Abdallah is a 39-year-old Maths teacher at the Collège (lower secondary school) and Lycée (high secondary school) in Djabal refugee camp. He and other teachers raised awareness about COVID-19, and quickly adapted lessons via WhatsApp groups, making sure the students without smartphones worked in groups with students who had access to them. Abdallah describes the closing of the schools as traumatic, since the pandemic jeopardised the students’ education and their futures.
How did the teachers continue their work despite the closure of schools due to COVID-19?
“We didn’t have any other choice. We teachers started raising awareness (on COVID-19) among the blocs in the camp. When the schools closed, the remote courses were challenging for the students, especially those without mobile phones so they weren’t able to access WhatsApp. Also, some students with mobile phone didn’t have money to purchase phone credit. We decided to divide the students so that those with phones could share assignments with those without them. The teachers sent the exercises on WhatsApp and the students sent a photo of their answers back. The Team-Teaching broadcasted radio lessons with Radio Sila. That also helped the students without a smartphone, for example. Mathematics courses were especially challenging, since blackboards are needed to explain the maths problems. Some refugees and Chadian students visited their teachers at home to ask questions about the lessons.”
How did you feel as a teacher?
“The schools were closed from one day to the other, unexpectedly, and we didn’t like that. I was surprised; it was the first time that courses were suspended! It affected me psychologically, because the future and education of our children was at stake.”
Aicha is a 56-year-old member of the Parents of Students Association (APE in French) at the Collège (lower secondary school) in Djabal refugee camp. She and other parents mobilised with UNHCR and JRS to raise awareness about COVID-19 and distribute masks within the camps. Poverty prevented many students from participating in courses offered through WhatsApp groups. Further, many students failed to return to school once they reopened. Aicha and other parents were assisted by a JRS initiative, to promote the importance of returning to school.
Tell us about the first weeks when schools were closed due to COVID-19.
“With the arrival of COVID-19 the students were discouraged, especially those writing for exams. It was not confirmed if exams were taking place that year. It was not easy at all for the students. The APEs met with UNHCR and JRS to find a solution. They distributed masks and organised awareness-raising activities at the camp.”
Did remote courses help the students to continue learning despite the closure of schools?
“The community was satisfied with the remote (WhatsApp) courses and the radio lessons. The teachers also found a strategy to help students without smartphones or radios and put them in working groups with students with access to WhatsApp.”
What were the main challenges students encountered while the schools were closed?
“Poverty within the community didn’t help. Many students had the will to continue their education, but they lacked the means to participate in the remote courses. Many didn’t have a smartphone, phone credit, or a radio. Some preferred to work in the fields instead. Girls were also overloaded with domestic work.”
How did the community react when the schools opened the doors again?
“The community was happy when the courses started again. However, some students returned to school later, because they were kept by their parents to work in the fields. JRS, in collaboration with the APEs, organised several awareness-raising campaigns on the importance of returning to school. These campaigns were successful in getting many students back in the classroom.”
This article was originally published on jrs.net