Students at Thiabakh elementary school sit in the classroom at Ndioum refugee camp in Ndioum, Senegal, November 2011.
Students at Thiabakh elementary school sit in the classroom at Ndioum refugee camp in Ndioum, Senegal, November 2011.

In Senegal?s northern Fouta region, the United Nations is helping thousands of Mauritanian refugee children continue their education. There are many economic and cultural challenges to staying in school while one is a refugee.

It is late afternoon at the Ndioum refugee camp, 500 kilometers northeast of Dakar. A few dozen Mauritanians have gathered after prayer to discuss new income-generating activities with members of the UN Refugee Agency.

Sitting quietly among this group of elderly men and women is Oumar Alassane Ba, a tall, lanky 16-year-old who is sporting a Chelsea football jersey and basketball shorts. Oumar is a Senegalese-born, Mauritanian refugee. He is the top student at his community high school and was named best overall student in the region.

Oumar said education for him is very important, because even though he is a student today, in the future he will be a father. His own father had to drop out of school, because of poverty, and he does not want this to happen to his own children.

Sixteen-year-old Oumar Alassane Ba is a Senegalese
Sixteen-year-old Oumar Alassane Ba is a Senegalese-born, Mauritanian refugee, who is the top student at his community high school and was named best overall student in the region, in Ndioum, Senegal, November 2011.

Challenges, opportunities for refugee students

Oumar is part of a new generation of refugees - a group who were born, schooled and, in some fortunate cases, financially supported in Senegal?s French school system.

The first group of refugee students arrived in 1989 among more than 60,000 Mauritanians who fled to Senegal following ethnic clashes. Many students arrived with little hope of continuing their studies.

Aboubakary Diack is a 43-year-old Mauritanian refugee and regional director for the US aid organization, Tostan, in Senegal?s northern city Matam. He was deported from his hometown of Kaedi in Mauritania, in June 1989, just a week before high school graduation. He arrived alone in Senegal without his family or his papers.

Diack said in the beginning he thought of nothing else but how to get home. He did not want to finish his studies in Senegal, because he did not understand French. Then he got an academic scholarship from the UN refugee agency. But the Senegalese government initially refused to recognize his previous schoolwork, because it was done in Mauritania?s Arabic school system.

Addressing issues to help students

The problem of different school systems has since been addressed, according to Marie-Aimee Mabita, Senior Regional Officer for UN refugee agency community services in West Africa.

Mabita said that they have helped put in place Arabic classes in schools in Senegal to help students integrate here, and French classes in Mauritanian schools, for those students returning home.

The UN refugee agency spends slightly more than 15% of its $1.4 million annual budget on education, including scholarships, rehabilitation projects and school materials here.

A couple hours drive from the Ndioum refugee camp is another site known as Thiabakh, in one of the poorest parts of the region. Here, at the three-room elementary school, boys and girls sit on small wooden benches reciting their French lesson. Two hundred and forty students are registered here - 60 are from refugee families.

Mamadou Ba is the school principle and one of three full-time teachers. He said some of the refugee families have four or five children at the school and the majority have money troubles, which is obvious from their clothes or lack of school material. Ba said kids are very sensitive to this, and to help ease the situation some of the teachers, including himself, have discretely given money to help them out.

According to the UN Refugee Convention, which Senegal has ratified, all children are guaranteed the same right to free primary school education, regardless of nationality, race or religion. In areas where a majority still lives off a couple dollars a day, however, the extra costs for food, clothes and even transportation make accessing and then continuing school very difficult.

Tackling inequities to better educate

Mabita said that while Senegal offers some of the best educational support in West Africa, in terms of infrastructure and teachers, there are still many areas in the Fouta region where the UN has had to help build and restructure schools. This is absolutely necessary, Mabita said, because education is an important way of helping young people integrate.

At a cultural level, the integration between Mauritanian refugees and local Senegalese has been relatively smooth. This is a result, many explain, of their shared Pulaar ethnicity. But within the Peul community, there are still some deeply engrained cultural and social traditions - some of which go against educational priorities.

Mabita said the formal education schools in Senegal have a lot of competition with the daaras, or Koranic schools, which many refugee children attend for religious reasons. The problem is these schools do not meet our standards of education. So when these young boys become adults, they are not able to properly function in society.

Mabita said the other issue is early marriage of young girls, which the UN is trying to address by giving girls preference over boys for scholarships and by educating the parents.

Back at the Ndioum camp, Oumar Alassane Ba stands tall before a group of young onlookers, the majority still in primary school. He admits he is lucky to have parents who pushed him to succeed. One day, he said, he dreams of becoming a physical chemist and to make his father proud.