> Departure: Boroli refugee camp, Uganda
> Arrival: Nearest primary school
> Distance: 15km
Akot Rachael treks 15 kilometres to and from school every day. Walking barefoot across tufty undergrowth, Akot Rachael is among a group of child refugees from the Boroli refugee camp in northern Uganda who trek 15 kilometres to the nearest primary school every day, chatting loudly despite their arduous journey.
“Sometimes I am so weak I have to take several stops under the trees along my way home,” she says. “I can’t afford breakfast and our home lunch is served while I am away at school. I starve until I return in the evening.”
Uganda, which has hosted South Sudanese refugees for decades, ruled that refugee children should attend public schools alongside Ugandan pupils instead of being taught in the camps. That has made life even tougher for the youngest refugees, who now have to hike several hours every day.
The decision affects Akot and all the other children from families who have sought refuge in Uganda since December 2013, when troops loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with rebels, sparking an ongoing conflict in many parts of the country, which is estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people. Many have fled their homes, including more than 130,000 South Sudanese who crossed the border to Uganda.
Akon Dorcus says she can’t send her six-year-old daughter to school anymore because of the distance. “My daughter had been studying back in Bentiu (in South Sudan) but there is no way she can walk this distance to school. Her legs are too little and weak. Now she’s missing out.”
Deng Adut, a worker at a World Vision early child development centre at the Nyumanzi refugee camp, some 40 minutes away from the Boroli camp, says the long school journey piled pressure on the young children. “Many of the children we look after have been traumatised by the violence they ran away from. They need to be treated tenderly. Having them walk very far to school is just another trauma.”
According to Ugandan government regulations, schools should be no more than five kilometres away, but in some areas this is an impossible target.
Long distances are not the only problem the refugee children face at school. Many lack food and basic materials like school books, and conditions are often cramped. About 3,000 students study at Boroli primary school, for example, which only has 20 classrooms, forcing many students to study outside sitting under trees. Meanwhile, children who have been taught in Arabic in South Sudan find it hard to adjust to lessons in Ugandan schools, which are taught solely in English.
The government has enrolled some refugee teachers to help the children integrate into their new learning environment. But these teachers are paid by the UNHCR in foreign currency, sparking complaints from local teachers demanding the same terms. “Ugandan teachers are complaining because the government delays paying them their salaries. Those of us who are paid by the UNHCR get all our incentives and salaries on time,” says Okello John, a refugee who teaches at the school.
Some of the refugee children continue their education against the odds, but others have given up and try to earn money instead. “I pray to go back home,” says Deng Ayok, who mends shoes at the camp instead of attending school. “There is no good life in the camp, especially for us children.”