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Peace through Education in Southern Sudan
Friday, August 27, 2010

Palwar Primary School in Southern Sudan. The Palwar school is one of three education projects implemented by Jesuit Refugee Service and funded by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in Lobone Payam, Southern Sudan. Palwar opened in April 2010. (Christian Fuchs - Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Southern Sudan

In the early 1990s, JRS started providing basic education to Southern Sudanese refugees in camps in Uganda and Kenya. Throughout their fifteen years of exile, the refugees from Southern Sudan placed a high value on education. When the refugees started to voluntarily return home in 2005 following a peace agreement, JRS expanded its educational ministry – which has always been a key aspect of the JRS mission to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees – as a way to encourage and support refugees during their return.

In January 2011, Southern Sudan will hold a referendum to choose independence from or unity with the north. The conduct, result, and aftermath of the vote will determine the direction of Southern Sudan’s future and the prospects for sustained peace in the region. During this uncertain period, JRS continues to accompany the people of Southern Sudan with programs that make schools the heart of new and restored communities, as focal points for hope for a better future and centers for peace building activities. Whatever the next year brings, we believe that the people of Southern Sudan will be better able to face the challenges ahead as a result of the support they have received through JRS education programs.

In this issue of The Refugee Voice, I invite you to learn more about how JRS is working to support the revitalization of Southern Sudan at this critical moment.

Fr. Ken Gavin, S.J.

Challenges to Peace

Walking amidst the lush tall grasses of Eastern Equatoria State in Southern Sudan and looking at the peaceful verdant hills dotted with trees, it is hard to imagine the chaos and carnage that raged throughout the area from 1983 until 2005. After a generation of civil war, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on January 9, 2005 ended armed hostilities between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan. The agreement created the semi-autonomous Government of South Sudan (GoSS) controlled by the SPLM, and provided for a six-year interim period leading up to a referendum on independence that is due to take place on January 9, 2011.    

Since the signing of the CPA, some 320,000 refugees and 50,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have returned home to Southern Sudan. Re-establishing their communities has been no easy task. There is little modern infrastructure in the country, as development was stalled by more than twenty years of war. Returning refugees have had to relearn the skills of subsistence farming, growing cassava, maize and beans in the rich red soil, often competing for land and water with those people who stayed behind during the conflict. Gradually, peace has made possible the beginnings of improvement in education, health, and sanitation, although much remains to be done. Throughout this period, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has contributed to this development by building schools, supporting teacher training, providing school supplies, encouraging the education of girls and building the capacity of local communities to take charge of their own educational needs. 

Yet as the referendum draws closer, tensions between the two Sudanese governments, that in Juba in the south and that in Khartoum, have only grown. Many provisions of the CPA that were to have been resolved prior to the referendum remain unimplemented, such as the delineation of the common border and an agreement on how oil revenues will be shared after the referendum. In addition, Southern Sudan struggles to control spreading internal violence that has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. It also faces a food shortage in Jonglei State, home to Akobo County, which a local UN official recently called the “hungriest place on earth.” With time running short and many complex issues left to resolve, international observers are concerned that Sudan’s north-south conflict could reignite and destroy recent progress.

The Need for Education

"Education in Southern Sudan is important because it is through education that we can sustain peace," said JRS Lobone Project Director Lam Leone Ferem.

During the civil war, Southern Sudanese refugees eagerly sought education for their children in affirmation of their hope for a better future amidst desperate circumstances. Parents in camps such as Adjumani (Uganda) and Kakuma (Kenya) understood that without education their children would become a lost generation. The schools operated by JRS in these camps gave the Southern Sudanese valuable basic skills and a sense of dignity and normalcy during their displacement. When return to Southern Sudan became possible, many families delayed their departure until the end of the school year, and refused to return until they were assured that their children's education could continue "back home." Working with UN agencies and the Southern Sudanese government, JRS anticipated these needs and worked to renovate and staff schools in locations targeted for repatriation.  

Initially, and often still today, the quality of education in schools founded by the returned Southern Sudanese refugees has been limited by local resources and teaching capacity. UNICEF’s 2006 Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces found that the majority of schools in Southern Sudan were located outdoors, under trees, and that fewer than 20% of teachers had a teaching qualification. The Government of Southern Sudan, facing challenges on numerous fronts, simply could not provide the necessary support to local schools, and urgently requested assistance from international non-governmental organizations, including JRS.

JRS saw a clear need to continue the educational ministry it had begun in the refugee camps so as to meet the needs of returnees. At the invitation of returnee communities, JRS began education projects in and around the towns of Nimule, Lobone, Kajo Keji, and Yei. The trust created through many years of previous interaction has allowed JRS to foster community involvement in the schools, including school management committees, parent teacher associations, and cultural activities.  JRS considers these programs an opportunity for returned refugees to experience the full benefits of peace while preparing for an independent future. 

"It was a turning point in my educational knowledge when I recently attended a two-week teaching program organized by JRS in Yei. The program covered the core subjects which include English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and geography… More than 150 students from six different secondary schools benefited from the program … All the students who attended said it was the best and most remarkable preparation program they cold imagine." ~ Ade Samuel, student at Equatorial College in Yei.

"Given educational opportunities, people have the potential to rebuild their lives, to help rebuild their communities and thus to strengthen and stabilize their countries for generations to come," said JRS International Director Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J.

Long Term Commitment  

Lobone, an area in Southern Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria state where JRS has worked since 2001, has more recently witnessed the return of the Acholi people. JRS is the only international agency working in this community. Through grants provided by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), JRS has improved access to primary education by building three primary schools and supporting seven schools. 

The schools in the Lobone area (Paimakong, Lerwa and Palwar) receive supplies, in-service training for untrained teachers, support for fifteen teachers to attend university, and encouragement of female education. Presently these projects directly benefit 2,200 students and 58 teachers, and also bring indirect benefits to thousands more in these communities.

"I was a beneficiary of JRS. JRS educated me, and now I work in the Lobone Administrative office during the morning, and teach adult education in the afternoon. Education for children is important, but adult literacy is also important, so I chose to teach adults." ~ Assistant Administrator of the Lobone Regional Government Office.

In 2009, JRS built the first permanent school in Lobone, at Paimakong. The local chief commented that "JRS really made a miracle, building the first permanent classroom in this (county), since the creation of this (area) by God," recalled JRS Lobone Project Director Lam Leone Ferem.

JRS also built the first permanent school buildings in the villages of Lerwa and Palwar. Prior to their construction this year, students met on classrooms of dirt floors, under thatch roofs held up by limbs hacked from nearby trees.  

"We prayed to God that He should give a sign that JRS should add more classrooms, so (students) could sit in a good place so they can study well,” said Oyet Thomas Dominic, Chief of Palwar. "The (students) are very happy about the building, because the building is very beautiful to them."

Prior to the opening of the school in Palwar, "We used dry cassava [a local crop] as chalk and a metallic door as the chalkboard," a community member said. 

JRS has worked in Nimule since 1997, and in that time developed a deep level of trust with the local community. Since 2007, UNHCR has assisted approximately 20,000 returns to the area, far outstripping the capacity of existing schools. With a grant from PRM, JRS is building two new schools in the Nimule area and will provide support to twenty-five primary schools. In total this will directly benefit 15,000 children and 350 teachers. JRS will provide school supplies, fund scholarships for teachers attending college for formal teaching qualifications, provide in-service training to enhance the skills of local teachers, and encourage female education.  

"In 2003 I moved back to Nimule, where I started working as an English teacher at a secondary school. I took part in training programs regularly organized by JRS to build the capacity of the teachers and improve the quality of teaching. JRS also engaged me as an adult instructor to teach English in the Functional Adult Literacy program. What I saved from my incentive later enabled me to pay part of my fees at university." ~ Vincent, a former refugee from Southern Sudan who recently completed his B.A. at Kampala International University.

In his book Islands of Education: Schooling, Civil War, and the Southern Sudanese (1983-2004), Mark Sommers, Associate Research Professor of Humanitarian Studies in the Institute of Human Security at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, declared that "the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service in providing education on both sides of the Uganda–Sudan border is a model that should be replicated and supported elsewhere."

Southern Sudan is vast, and the needs are far larger than JRS alone can address. JRS indeed hopes its accomplishments in Southern Sudan will provide a template for others to replicate, thus benefitting many more people. The expansion of educational opportunities for returning refugees can be a key factor in stabilizing local communities, improving local capacity and demonstrating the benefits of the peace process.  

"Education is important to our people because, as they say, 'Education is the key to the world!' We want our children to develop. In the future, some can become doctors, teachers … a president even can come from this school, if God wishes," said Mr. Dominic.

Call to Action  

• Every child of Southern Sudan should have access to primary and secondary education.

• The education of girls should remain a high priority and be promoted through international organizations familiar with local communities.  

• Southern Sudanese communities should be supported in their efforts to staff and direct their schools with mutually acceptable support from international agencies and organizations, until such time as these communities and the Government of Southern Sudan develop the capacity to assume responsibility for them. 

• International organizations and the GoSS must do more to ensure that quality education is made available in areas of repatriation. 

• Because hungry children cannot learn, education must be accompanied by sustained and increased support for the World Food Program projects in Sudan that seek to address current food shortages.

• In-service training and college education must become more accessible to teachers in Southern Sudan.

• In addition to support to education for children, sustained international support is needed for adult education, including community peace building and reintegration activities in order that the full benefits of  peace can be realized by all of the people of Southern Sudan.

• Whatever the outcome of the CPA, the Government of Southern Sudan will require sustained international support to strengthen all of its institutions, including its Ministry of Education, if the gains made thus far are to continue.

• In order to fully succeed, education requires an environment of stability and hope, this environment can only be achieved if both the governments of northern and southern Sudan uphold their stated commitment to non-violent reconciliation.

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