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Pandemic makes learning even harder for Uganda’s refugee children

A new report out from UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, says that at the global height of the pandemic, nearly half a billion children could not access remote learning during lockdowns. Distance education is even harder for hundreds of thousands of children living in dire conditions, such as those at this Ugandan refugee camp. Special correspondent Isabel Nakirya reports from Kampala.

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  • Stephanie Sy:

    A new report out today from UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, says that, at the global height of the pandemic, nearly half-a-billion children could not access remote learning during lockdowns.

    And distance learning is even harder for hundreds of thousands of refugee children living in dire circumstances, like in .

    And it's from the north of that country that special correspondent Isabel Nakirya sends us this report.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    At the end of the day, the Sebe children gather together on the floor of their mud hut to start their schoolwork.

    The three sisters and two brothers are South Sudanese refugees, living in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in Northern Uganda. Ranging in age from 6 to 17 years, the whole family is here, except their 16-year-old brother, who has gone out to look for firewood.

    As the eldest, Scovia takes care of her siblings. Their father was killed in the conflict in South Sudan, and their mother abandoned them. The children arrived in Uganda unaccompanied in 2016, after escaping terrible violence at home.

  • Scovia Sebe (through translator):

    When the shooting started, we all ran and followed people until we reached the Ugandan border. We were all put on a bus for Bidi Bidi, and my brother put up the tent that we were given.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    They have lived here ever since, and been in government schools run with support of international agencies.

    But since school shut down in March, 3.5 months later, the family of five received a single set of worksheets and instructions. This is the only material the government has provided to support them as they study at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

    But the Sebe children say they hardly grasp anything.

  • Scovia Sebe (through translator):

    We struggle on our own. No one is here to help us understand the work.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Uganda is home to 1.4 million refugees, mainly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bidi Bidi is the largest refugee settlement in Africa.

    Over 60 percent of the refugees in this settlement are children. And many of them are stuck at home doing no schoolwork. Refugee agencies working here say it's difficult to get every child on board because there is not enough learning material for everyone.

    And it's not just learning materials in short supply. The government is broadcasting lessons, but with no electricity, children who live in these huts in refugee settlements have no access to the Internet or TV.

    The NGO World Vision is distributing battery operated radios and solar lights, but they don't have enough for everyone.

  • Adina Peace Comfort:

    But now that they are at home, even reading has become very hard for them, coupled with the issues of lights. It's rare that settlements have lights.

    They don't even have access to these radios, however much we are supporting this one family, but that are other families elsewhere within the settlements, they are lacking these items.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    With school closed, many children are now spending their days working in the fields, and supporting their families; 13-year-old Noella Mzungu is a Congolese refugee living in Uganda's capital, Kampala.

    She was on track to take exams this year that would allow her to enter high school next year. But, with school closed, she's pitching in to help with her parents' tailoring business. And Noella is worried she's falling behind in her schoolwork.

  • Noella Mzungu:

    Because studying from television is very hard. You can do any of it and not understood what the teacher is teaching. And you have nobody to help you.

    So, I decided to be helping my mom, because studying from my television, it's very difficult.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Helping the family to survive is a common theme; 14-year-old Farigi Delfe is also a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He's selling fish to help support his family of 10, making no pretense of keeping up with classwork.

    Education specialists warn, refugee children may not be able to catch up when schools eventually reopen. And for these children, like millions of others worldwide escaping violence and horror, school is a lifeline for more than just education.

  • Joseph Sally:

    A lot is learned at school, a lot. Some of them are traumatized. They get counseling through play.

    They get healing over their trauma through sharing their stories, through talking to a friend, through hearing what others have gone through. All this is cut off. And we have a very high likelihood of children resorting back to those survival mechanisms, which are as a result of trauma. So, for this to be ruled out, we need our schools open.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    For hundreds of thousands of refugee children in Uganda, homeschooling is the only way to continue their education during the pandemic.

  • Scovia Sebe (through translator):

    Now that we have a small lamp to use, we are happy that we can now do some reading. But we miss school.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    For now, the Sebe siblings have a pack of learning materials and a light to read by, and they're determined to take on the challenge to graduate to the next class.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this Isabel Nakirya in Northern Uganda.

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