Today was Day 2 in Camp Goz Amer. It was a very good day. I wish we would’ve spent more time, but there is so much coordination that takes place just for us to go to the camps. Sunday is the only off day for many staff members, but Alaine at JRS (Jesuit Refugee Services) the NGO (non-governmental agency) in charge of the Education for the camp, sent a driver to take us (probably on his day off). In addition, we had to make sure that our escorts from DIS (the Chadian security force, or Détachement Intégré de Sécurité) were also available. We left for the camp around 8 a.m. and had to leave by 12 p.m.
Our first meeting when we arrived was with the primary school teachers. Primary school is from first grade to eighth grade. We all introduced ourselves and Umda (one of the leaders of the camp, and an amazing person) translated for us. After introductions, Melissa, Jennifer and I had an opportunity to meet privately with the first grade teachers. We had many questions to ask regarding what they do during the day with the first graders, and how the day is structured. The first grade teacher who did most of the talking was Ahmed Hassan Yagoub. Not only does he teach first grade, he also teaches English for the secondary school. (His background is in geometry, but began teaching 1st grade when his brother started school). In the first grade class, he is the only teacher in a class of 100 students. As a matter of fact, all three first grade teachers have 100 students in their “classrooms.” The first grades “classrooms” are tents outside that look like the EZ-Ups canopies. We asked what the day was like. Ahmed told us that they begin with teaching the children letters and numbers, then move on to words and sentences. They use songs and movement to teach, in addition to posting letters on the sides of the tent. Ahmed let us know that with children learning has to be fun and sometimes they go outside to plan and “make jokes” to keep the children interested. Same as us. He also was frustrated that parents don’t always come when there is an issue with their child, and sometimes they don’t see the value of education. Hmmm. Same as us. When we told him that we sometimes have the same problem in America, he was shocked!!! (So am I.) He said that it was sometimes a struggle with teaching children Arabic, when they speak another language at home and the children get no support from home to learn the new language. Once again, same as us.
We asked him if he had any questions. I’ve been thinking of his first question all day. He said, “Why are you started a new school when we need so much help here.” I got his point. Here we are starting a brand new program, preschool, when in the old program, 100 children are meeting in one tent for first grade. Good question!
Melissa explained to him that one of the reasons was that the children from 3-5 are left alone and unsupervised all day. As a result, some children play by the wadi (river) and drown. Some children play with fires, and when one hut catches on fire, it’s a matter of moments before 10 huts burn down. If it’s a windy day, and the fire spreads too fast, people die, like the little girl whose charred remains were found recently. I also told Ahmed that we have learned, in recent years, that the first years of life are very important. The brain is developing and if we can teach children letters and numbers, colors and shapes, before they come to first grade, his job would be a lot easier. He seemed to understand, but still was not convinced that we shouldn’t be doing more for the programs that were already there. I don’t blame him. I’m sure I would’ve felt the same way. He was extremely polite, well spoken, and had a genuine concern for the education of the children in the camp. We talked some more about what the teachers wanted and expected the children to know, and to be able to do when they get to first grade. It was a good conversation, and as educators, it seemed as if we were on the same page.
I am looking forward to tomorrow. At the beginning of the project, the executive committee of the refugee community agreed that the pilot preschool would begin in one sector of the camp. There are over 7,000 children who need a preschool program in 7 sectors of the camp. Gabriel and others chose section 5, for many reasons, to kick off the pilot. When this was proposed last November, the executive committee agreed (community leaders of the camp). Now that the school has been built, and it is probably the most modern, well constructed building in the entire camp, the executive committee is having an issue. Instead of limiting the preschool to sector 5, they want other children (mostly theirs from other sectors) to have access to the school. If this happens, it might derail the entire operation. The new school would become an elitist school, and only the upper echelon of the refugee population would have the benefit of preschool, sort of like the Reggio inspired schools in the US. (LOL). We are supposed to meet with the committee on Monday to explain why that can’t happen. Wish us luck!
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