As a teacher in South Africa, it’s very tempting to navel gaze because of the woes facing education in this country. My temptation is always curbed when I read stories about other teachers who are teaching in the midst of political turmoil in conflict-ridden countries. Like a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan for example. When a country is faced with geopolitical conflict, the stories of the people who suffer the most often don’t make breaking news; their stories become the footnote in the larger discourse of war and militarisation. When we read about Syria we know about the sanctions, the influence of the Arab Spring and the “rebel” groups and military’s role in violent operations.

I recently read about a teacher, Mohammed, who works at a refugee camp in Jordan called Zaatari. There are schools in this camp supported by various international bodies. He works for two well-known schools that support almost 20 000 children whose families fled from the unrest in Syria. His experience highlights the tensions that arise in the efforts of trying to a resume life in the context of a refugee camp. There are cultural tensions because all the children in Zaatari are Syrians but the teachers are Jordanian.

Schools in refugee camps are highly reliant on humanitarian aid but this has decreased over the recent years. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report shows that in 2012, education accounted for just 1.4% of humanitarian aid, down from 2.2% in 2009 therefore “education suffers from a double disadvantage, not only receiving a small share overall, but also receiving the smallest proportion of the amount requested of any sector”[1].

Organisations such as Unicef and Save the Children have been instrumental in providing support for learning in some refugee camps where hundreds of children are dependent on a few camp schools to support their learning. In Mohammed’s camp he posits that there are “50 000 children in the camp in total. Half of them are school aged children and 20 000 are currently registered with a school”. These children are in safe spaces where they can learn despite the displacement and trauma they have suffered before arriving at Zaatari. But this isn’t without its challenges. According to Mohammed: “Some of the children are still scared of school because they saw their schools being destroyed because of bombing and think the schools are like those in Syria. Some of them don’t come because they think they are not certified in Jordan but this is not true, they can all come. Some refuse to take the Jordanian curriculum and want their own Syrian curriculum. Sometimes some students don’t come to school because it’s very far away from their tent or caravan and are afraid to be targeted by the bad boys in the street.”

Zaatari is one example of how conflict disrupts the lives of those who are the most helpless, the children. Their right to education is sacrificed in the name of war and power. Schools have to become safe spaces for children in order for them to come to terms with the atrocities they’ve witnessed. Children across conflict-ridden countries such as Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi find themselves in camps where 23 000 people have to survive. In one refugee camp in Uganda there were only two primary schools and one secondary school for thousands of children. The question of access to quality education seemed irrelevant when the numbers show that it’s near impossible to get a decent education in such a context. Not only are children dealing with the trauma of being away from home, they also have to face the reality that their learning is disrupted and the conditions they find themselves in at camp schools jeopardise their learning.

This is a travesty that will continue until the power struggles in conflict-ridden countries have been dealt with and people can return to their homes to try and piece their lives back together again. Mohammed’s story is an example of how access to education is compromised in countries that are in dire need for stability and reform, such as Syria. When violence erupted in Central African Republic thousands of people were displaced. Some have ended up in Chad. When reading about their situation, it is a very desperate situation where learning and education may not be considered a priority for many months or even years.

When I first began thinking about how education is affected in violent communities I limited my thoughts to South Africa. This narrow-mindedness is dangerous as there are always people trying to reshape their lives after conflict. It’s easy to take the pockets of stability for granted in South Africa. What should our collective and individual response be to the global phenomenon of violence disrupting learning?

This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.

[1] Education for All Global Monitoring Report c/o UNESCO,, 2013


Athambile Masola

Athambile Masola

A teacher in Johannesburg.Interested in education,feminism and sometimes a bit of politics (with a small letter p).

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