In a Ugandan camp run by the United Nations refugee agency, southern Sudanese women and girls acknowledge that their access to free education has caused them to delay rushing back home, even though a peace accord went into effect in the region in January.
“When I was brought from Sudan, I didn’t know what education was or what school was,” says 18-year-old Mary Night, who fled war-torn Sudan with her parents 10 years ago. “In fact, it was my good luck that I ended up being a refugee. If I had been in Sudan all this time, I would not have been in school.”
Her priority now is to get a university education in accounting or economics, but she is not sure whether she would find that opportunity in Sudan.
Refugees outside the country often list education above peace and security as their main requirements for ending their exile and coming home, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says.
Preparing for the return of 4.5 million refugees with educational ambitions for themselves or their children, starting in October, UNHCR is rebuilding 26 schools around the towns of Luthaya, Yei and Kajo Keji.
The agency is also putting up several health centres, as well as upgrading water supplies and clearing landmines.
Food and money are in short supply, however. Children in Yei cheerfully attend school without shoes, uniforms or breakfast.
“They want to learn, but the problem is hunger,” Alphonse Moi, headmaster of St. Joseph’s Luthaya Primary and Secondary Schools, says, standing under one of the shady trees that serve as classrooms while the brick school buildings are being constructed. “They can’t learn when they are hungry.”
Mr. Moi, dressed in clean, pressed clothing that is threadbare in parts, says he returned from a northern Ugandan refugee camp to help the local children, including those of refugees returning home without UNHCR’s help, and his wife now farms to put food on the table for their five children.
He wonders whether south Sudanese teachers now working in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya and other countries in the region, should be offered financial incentives to return home.