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Education still elusive goal for refugees even with Uganda’s open door policy

Halid Aluma had just completed his primary school education in 2016 when he was forced to flee to Uganda, leaving everything else behind.

Fresh fighting had broken out between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his then vice president Riek Machar. This had been Aluma’s life, several times before.

He was only three-years-old in 2005 when the guns first fell silent in his home country after a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army leader Dr John Garang and President Omar el Bashir.

Just before breaking into his teens in 2011, South Sudan seceded from the larger Sudan. But that honeymoon was short lived as war broke out just two years later in December 2013.

The war is estimated to have killed more than 400,000 people and displaced more than four million. A peace deal signed in 2018 has yet to be fully implemented.

Aluma and his family now live in Nyumanzi refugee settlement in Adjumani district in Uganda’s west Nile region.

The district is home to about 18 refugee settlements hosting slightly above 200,000 refugees from South Sudan out of the over 1.5 million in Uganda according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The numbers have taken a toll on the country, compromising its ability to offer basic services like secondary education and quality health services to refugees as well as the host communities.

Residents are forced to walk long distances to access already overcrowded facilities.

But Aluma wants more: Education. However, the nearest secondary school is 16km away.

Many children of both locals and refugees would simply drop out of school after primary either unable to trek that distance every day or afford the high school fee. The girls, with pressure from the families go into marriage as young as 16 years.

There are, however, joint efforts from both communities to solve the problem although so much especially in finances is still lacking.

In late 2017 when the number of students completing primary school rose in this area, both the host and refugee communities came to an understanding to start a school even though they did not have money.

The community secondary school started with small classes at a church in the settlement run by the Sudanese Episcopal Church but faced immediate challenges of space and teachers.

A member of the host community then offered land to put up a school and a few makeshift structures were built to start off Senior One to Senior Four, while some classes opted for the shades under the trees.

A recruitment exercise was done to get teachers from the community, and within no time, the Maji Secondary School was running, with an initial number of over 400 students in Senior One in the first year. UNHCR stepped in to pay salaries for the school’s 10 teachers, built two classroom blocks and provided learning materials.

Robert Evuma the school’s head teacher said during a visit to the school that there has been a continuous rise in the number of learners over the years to the point that the school might not accommodate all of them.

“We are sceptical of the number but we have expectations that the enrolment is going to be beyond 1,000 students this year,” said Mr Evuma.

The Ugandan government has given the school a grant to put up more structures and has promised to take up payment of teachers and also enrol it in its universal secondary education programme, a government initiative that offers free education to students from under privileged families.


But since it is the only one in the area, many students still have to walk not less than three kilometres daily.

Aluma, who stays 4km away says he has to wake up by 5am, and set off by 6am to walk for nearly two hours to the school. He makes the same journey back to the settlement. Many students, he says, especially girls from this camp cannot move this distance for safety reasons and drop out and get married.

“There are many challenges but some of the biggest are the distance we cover to come to school and the problem of school fees even though the school allows us to pay in instalments,” Aluma said.

A few like him however keep going as they will not give up the only opportunity that could lead them to their dreams.

“I have always wanted to be a journalist and I will be a journalist now that I have a chance to study, I will take it,” Aluma said.

Before he took up his current position as the head boy, Aluma was contributing to the school’s news team which gathers headlines from newspapers and radio to read to fellow students.

It is difficult, however, to access the newspapers, he said, and the school does not have a fully stocked library to facilitate his reading and that of his colleagues.

His head teacher said that with little funding amid an increase in the number of students, the school has few latrines used by both students and teachers, has no science laboratories or library and needs teachers’ quarters for staff who find it difficult to access the school every morning especially on rainy days, causing them to skip classes or delay lessons.

“Some teachers opt to rent houses within the nearby communities but the amount is a burden because they don’t earn much,” he said.

Aluma also said that for parents, raising school fees for their children is hard even when the school allows them to pay in instalments.

“Most of the refugee students earn from cutting grass or working in people’s gardens,” he said.

The school charges Ush50,000 ($13) per term with two kilogrammes of maize for feeding per child. Parents from both communities who do not have money either bring animals like goats, chicken or offer casual labour to the school until the fees debt is settled.


The difficulty of accessing basic secondary education is not unique to Nyumanzi, according to Jonathan Matata the Rhino Camp assistant commandant, and that education is just but a fraction of the help both the refugees and the host communities need, with services like health, water and sanitation still lacking.

Even when the refugees contribute to the country’s economic development especially those working, doing business and paying taxes, their presence is also having a negative impact on the country’s economy mainly through widespread environmental degradation and strain on social services.

Last year, Uganda’s Minister of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refuges Hillary Onek relayed concerns about the international community not fully supporting Uganda’s open door policy to refugees. His junior minister, Musa Ecweru told The EastAfrican that the country has a projected budget of $1.03 billion for its refugee emergency plan for this financial year, but only $200 million was available by last year.

President Yoweri Museveni together with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres hosted the Solidarity Summit in Kampala in June 2017 to help raise money to support the high number of refugees that the country was receiving from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. The conference aimed to raise at least $2 billion but only managed $358 million.

According to UNHCR, half of the world’s refugees are children and in Uganda, they constitute 60 per cent of the refugee population. Making education a reality for them will help meet Sustainable Development Goal 4, which aims to deliver “inclusive and quality education for all and to promote lifelong learning.”



Uganda is the third largest refugee-hosting country in the world after Turkey and Pakistan.

Wars, violence and persecution in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes Region have been the main drivers of forced displacement into Uganda, led by South Sudan’s conflict, insecurity and ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and political instability and human-rights violations in Burundi.

South Sudanese make up the largest refugee population in Uganda. Twelve of Uganda’s 121 districts host the overwhelming majority of refugees. About 92 per cent live in settlements alongside the local communities.


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