More than half of school-aged refugee children in Chad are not enrolled in school. Many of the more than 100,000 unenrolled children were born in refugee camps after their families fled conflict in their native Darfur. The ongoing conflict, which has not end in sight, has kept Darfuri refugees from returning home for more than a decade.
Djamila is 12 years old and, until very recently, was among the 56% of school-age refugee children in Chad not going to school. Like many other children her age, Djamila must work to support her family.
The first time I saw her, I was immediately struck by the fact that I seemed to be meeting an adult trapped in a young girl’s body. What impressed me most was the enormous sense of responsibility she had taken on: how she managed the house, her little siblings, and even her grandmother.
At the market, where she works every afternoon, she paid steadfast attention to her work. At her side, almost motionless, was her 5-year-old sister. I offered them some cookies, but Djamila, demonstrating her precocious maturity, invited her sister to take one and kept the rest to be portioned out. After spending the day with the two of them, I came to the conclusion that these children had lost their innocence – an innocence that was taken away by their situation as displaced people, and an innocence that would be hard to recover.
A few days after my encounter with Djamila, I went for the first time to one of the Child Friendly Spaces that the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) runs in the Sudanese refugee camps in eastern Chad as part of their children protection program. The purpose of these spaces is to guarantee the welfare of minors, offering them a safe place where, among many other things, they can do recreational and educational activities, and also receive psychosocial assistance.
I must admit that my expectations before my visit were not very high, “it’s ultimately just a playroom,” I thought to myself.
When I arrived, I found a small building with colorful walls covered with children’s drawings. Outside, there was a small stretch of land where about 30 children played in the open. The noise was deafening. They sang, danced and, in a second, I was surrounded by toy planes that glided alongside me, and little doctors who examined their stuffed animals with interested concern.
One of the girls looked at me insistently, as if she expected more than just a simple smile from me; that was when Mady, a social worker from the JRS Goz Beïda team, alerted me: “Laura, that’s Djamila.”
How was it possible that I had not recognized her?
For a second, when I looked at her features I could not believe it: she seemed to be five years younger. She wore a smile from ear to ear and you could see in her eyes the innocence that I had been unable to perceive during the day I first met her at the market. Even her gestures and movements were different, and much more childish. Without knowing exactly what it was that had prompted such a bittersweet feeling in me, I approached her and hugged her.
Today, I can say that that experience was the most exciting moment of my stay in Chad. Mixed feelings. On one hand, I felt guilty for having assumed with false certainty that these children could never recover their innocence, for having given them up for lost. On the other hand, the joy and satisfaction of understanding the importance of playing, of knowing that they have these spaces where they can afford to be children, even if just for a moment during the day.
By protecting childhood, JRS supports refugee families in finding joint solutions that aim to ensure the well-being of all children. Above all these solutions must enable children to go to school, since education plays a key role in emergency situations. Fortunately, and thanks to the childhood protection program, Djamila has started attending school.
But until all children can be enrolled in school, it is important for them to have spaces in which they can engage, be listened to, and, of course, exercise their very basic, and at the same time quite forgotten, right to play.