How Refugees in Ghana and Liberia Started a School for Their Own

Before the free schools came up, a large number of refugee children were not getting an education because their parents could not afford the fees.

A boy lights his cigar, “Everyday this woman cries. Women of Liberia hold fast onto your prayers. Your tears, I mean your tears are important. They could make a cup of water for us to drink. Have you forgotten how cruel we were during the civil war?”

A woman sitting in the corner shouts, “Shut up, you filthy rebel. Shut up!”

“Who are you calling rebels? I said who are you calling rebels? We are child soldiers under the maximum authority of our superiors.”

“Oh, you mean you are the man who killed a pregnant woman and took the little baby from her stomach. And it’s you who killed our families, raped our young girls and women, destroyed our future. Yes, it is you. We will pray God gives you severe treatment for the massacre of innocent unborn children you have caused.”

“Stop sister, stop.”

“Women of Liberia, we are all women in tears, who were abused, sexually, mentally, and our babies became child soldiers. Let us put away the past.”

“Hmm, I think you are right. Indeed, they are our children. Let us forgive them and bring peace and reconciliation, mothers, please put away your tears.”

“We agree; we are no more child soldiers.”

“Yes, we are the future of the nation…”

In the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana, children are performing a role play in their school. They reflect on how the civil war in Liberia has ruined the lives of common people. “These children were not born when the civil war took place in Liberia, but it is important for them to know what happened in the civil war. Unless you know the history, you cannot make your future bright. We can learn many lessons from history,” said Sam Daniel, their drama teacher.

After being displaced by the civil war, thousands of people are now trying to survive terrible poverty in Ghana’s Buduburam refugee camp. “Getting food is a daily struggle. I remember going to bed without food for many days. If you are lucky you will get some gari, pepper, salt and chicken soup. It becomes a huge meal for that day,” said Marilyn Clinton, a woman who lives in the Buduburam camp.

“Since there are no toilets in the camp, we go to the golf course. It is not really a bush area, some parts are even barren. You cannot go there alone. It is very risky. At any time the local Ghanaian people may come and harm you. They feel very happy to harass us,” said Clinton. Sexual abuse and exploitation of refugee girls and women by local communities have been officially reported. For instance in 2012, an unregistered orphanage at the camp was closed down and its managers allegedly arrested for prostituting girls. “During a visit to the refugee camp in April 2012 we discovered that orphaned refugee girls were being sold for sex and their orphanage had become a hub for sex-trade activity,” said Danny Kresynak, who is associated with Journalists for Human Rights, a Toronto based media development agency.

But now there is something in the Buduburam camp that its residents are proud of. A school is providing free education to children and employment opportunities to teachers. “A school in the refugee camp is no less than a miracle for us. We are hopeful for our children now,” said Habbi Kamara, a refugee in the camp.

The journey of a refugee

Karrus Hayes is one of over 40,000 refugees, mostly Liberian, who live in this camp in Ghana. “I came here as a result of Liberia civil war. I don’t have any idea what happened to my family. I came to Ghana in 1996 and left my family behind in Liberia,” said Hayes.

Hayes is one of the founding members of Vision Awake Africa for Development (VAAFD), an NGO dedicated to work for the refugee communities of Ghana and Liberia. “Actually my vision was never to start a school, but I walked around the camp and I saw that many kids were out of school because their parents don’t have money to pay school fees. This troubled me, but I didn’t know what to do or where to start.”

As a first step, Hayes took the space offered by a local church called Ghana Christian Centre and started a free primary school in the Buduburam refugee camp. Volunteers from the camp became teachers. The school was named Carolyn A. Miller Elementary School (CAMES). “For these refugee children who have become orphans due to the civil war in Liberia, education had become a distant dream. We are grateful to Hayes for initiating such a noble step,” said K. Hopeson, the church’s pastor.

Carolyn A. Miller is one of many personalities who has influenced and inspired Hayes’s work with refugee children. An American from Iowa, Miller came to Liberia in 1966 to teach nursing at the Cuttington University College.

“On sponsorship by the Lutheran Church of USA, I stayed in Liberia for over 24 years and came across many people. Hayes Hayes is one among them. I knew him from Liberia and when he became a refugee at the Buduburam camp in Ghana, he quickly began to see the tremendous need for the Liberian children who were now refugees in Ghana to continue with school. His special interest was the children who were orphaned by the war and had absolutely no chance to attend school without money. So he started the school in the local church,” Miller told The Wire.

Students at CAMES, Ghana. Credit: Karrus Hayes

Students at CAMES, Ghana. Credit: Karrus Hayes

Hayes soon realised that the space allotted by the church was too small, with the number of children coming to school increasing every day. This was the only school in the camp that provided free education. “It was time for the school to grow, to reach out to the other children in the camp. We were crippled without financial resources. The government is not bothered with these children. No other private agencies or NGOs were working at that time in the camp whom we could request for assistance,” said Hayes.

Soon, Hayes and his volunteer teachers saw a ray of hope.

One day, Cori Shepherd Stern, an American screenwriter and humanitarian worker, visited the Buduburam refugee camp along with two volunteer friends. They were working towards sensitising the residents on the prevention of HIV/AIDS and also providing counselling to victims of the disease. Soon Stern came to know about Hayes and his school, and she was invited to visit CAMES. She was deeply impressed by the project and assured Hayes that she would help him raise funds for a new school building.

After returning to the US, Stern got her friends involved in raising funds and launched a ‘Ten Days Mission’. Her group successfully raised $5,000 to build a brand new school, and they even came to Ghana to build it. “Since you cannot help everyone, you have to pay special attention to those whom you come upon by accidents of time or circumstances. It was my pleasure to launch the Ten Days Mission, not only with all our Ten Days volunteers but with all the Liberian volunteers in the refugee camp who came together to build the school,” said Stern.

Building classroom realities

With the generous support of Stern and her friends, Hayes’s dream of establishing a school building in the Buduburam refugee camp turned into reality in 2005. Both young and old refugees joined hands with the volunteering team.

“We were all overwhelmed at that moment. We thought we are not constructing mere buildings of cement, iron rods and bricks; rather we are building a platform for educating these children in one of the poorest and most war-affected nations of the world,” said Hayes.

Today, the school has nine classrooms, 15 teachers and 212 students. Free materials like pens, pencils, notebooks and textbooks are provided to the students. In addition, a wholesome cooked meal made from rice, gari, beans, greens, cassava and plantain is also served to the children for lunch, ensuring at least one nourishing meal per day.

Above all, CAMES lays emphasis on developing a favourable classroom environment, where students spontaneously articulate their ideas and aspirations. For Hayes and his team, the task has just begun.

“Students can’t begin to learn if they don’t feel safe in their own classroom. It is very important for any newcomer in my classroom to feel safe and secure. They need to have that support system because the classroom community could be that child’s only sense of security for the day as their home life might be very difficult,” explained Kwou Scout, the principal of CAMES. “The classroom structure is their safety net because everything else around these children could be in turmoil due to possible transitions issues.”

But creating an enabling environment in the classroom was very challenging. Due to constant transitions in the camp, a student sometimes feels lost, alone and become uncooperative with teachers and classmates, and confused by the expectations of the school. “Facing problems such as poverty, depression and loneliness, students often long for meaningful connections with their peers and teachers in school. They also struggle in initiating and sustaining these relationships,” said Lydia L. Thomas, who works as a teacher in CAMES.

In order to address the issue, teachers were sensitised and sustained efforts were taken to increase their capacity to understand the psychology of refugee children. “We have seen that the key factor in creating successful classroom communities are those teachers who are able to identify the specialised needs of refugee children and who are culturally responsive to the needs of refugee children in the classroom,” said Kwou.

In addition to teaching core academic subjects, teachers also talk about how to live in society, how to be supportive of each other and how to prepare themselves to be productive and cooperative members of the communities in which they live. “When somebody new comes in to our school, they are paired up with possibly somebody who speaks their language or at least from their area. In this way, the new student finds a enabling environment to articulate his or her feelings and experience,” said Thomas.

As Hayes puts it, “By creating classrooms and schools where students and parents feel a part of a community, teachers help students feel valued in their school experiences and, as a consequence, feel more motivated to do well in academics”.

Students with new book. Credit: Karrus Hayes

Students with new book. Credit: Karrus Hayes

“Unlike conventional education, in CAMES we follow child-centric education methods which engage students with the subject. We encourage students to discuss, brainstorm and debate. Role plays are also conducted by the students on various topics like how to prevent the Ebola virus, why is education important, why should we protect forests,” said Kwou.

Emphasis is given to appreciating students’ cultural knowledge, he added; they are motivated to express and share their experience which ultimately boosts their self-confidence. “It is also an important way for teachers to learn more about their student’s language needs. Teaching through objects is an excellent means to enhance students’ sensory literacy, allowing them to develop the ability to compile evidence through sight, touch, hearing, smell and even taste, and to analyse.”

The school also promotes extra-curricular activities like sports, drawing, singing and drama, Hayes added.

Jacob Roberts, who works as a physical education teacher, said, “We do regular physical exercise. But we only have one football, no jerseys, nothing of that kind. Salary is also a problem for us. Since there is lack of funds, sometimes we are not paid for 2-3 months. We are just bearing it. Because we cannot give up, we have to continue. I can’t keep back what I have learned. I am giving it to these children, so tomorrow they will help build Liberia.”

“Despite the challenges our teachers are doing a great job, they are dedicated and passionate to rebuild the future of Liberia. And the results are praiseworthy,” said Hayes. Within the last decade, over 5,000 children who would otherwise have remained outside of the school system have graduated with their basic school certificates, and the chance to build a future.

Take for instance Mimi Mulbah, a former CAMES student now pursuing her degree in nursing at Cuttington University. “I never thought that I would be able to study at the university level but with the help of CAMES my dream has come true,” Mulbah told The Wire. Josephine, another former CAMES student, is now studying at the African Methodist University.

Returning to Liberia

Meanwhile, as the situation in Liberia started to improve, refugees who fled to Ghana during the civil war were allowed by the Liberian government to return to their home country. “It was a very tough moment for me. Over the years, I have established a strong bonding with the refugee communities in Buduburam But, it was also time for me to return to my country. But we will not close CAMES in Ghana. Not at all,” said Hayes.

There are a lot of refugees in the Buduburam who lost their families during the civil war and decided not to return. For them, a school like CAMES is the only option to educate their children in Ghana. The school has now been running successfully for several years.

After returning to Liberia in 2009, Hayes noticed the same problem in Monrovia, the capital city. Refugees who had returned Liberia hardly had the resources to send their children to school. Therefore, he set up another CAMES – targeting the growing stream of returnees from Ghana. The school has around 400 students, ranging from kindergarten to the 12th standard. About half of these students are former refugees who have come back from Ghana.

“However, raising funds for the school in Liberia has proven to be a much more difficult task than doing the same in Ghana. In Ghana, the school gets regular visitors from the US and other Western countries, who provide volunteer support and donations. This is not the case in Liberia, which does not yet attract the type of tourist that Ghana does,” said Hayes.

“Initially, we had persistently requested to the Ministry of Education of both Ghana and Liberia to provide financial assistance to CAMES. But their response was not very encouraging,” Hayes continued. In 2015, the Liberian Ministry of Education donated some primary textbooks to the school. And in 2016, the Gahnaian Ministry of Education donated a couple of computers.

“We have realised that mere individual donations are not adequate to raise funds for the school, so we started a crowdfunding campaign through the Global Giving platform. And to some extend we have been successful in raising funds,” said Hayes. The principal is looking for creative ways to make the school self-sufficient – selling crafts or agricultural products are some of the possibilities being explored.

According to a UNHCR report, Refugees are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average. Some 3.5 million refugee boys and girls have no access to education, while only 1 percent attend university education. Only 50 percent of refugee children have access to primary education, compared with a global average of more than 90 percent”.

Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of the state, described the country’s education system as “a mess”.  The Ministry of Education estimates that 60% of primary school-age children aren’t enrolled in classes and as many as 5,000 teachers on the government payroll are “ghosts” – meaning that although they don’t show up for work, somebody is pocketing their pay-checks, at a cost of 15% of the country’s annual education budget.

In this backdrop, schools like CAMES are a ray of hope. It is high time for the Liberian government to revisit education policies and make them more inclusive as well as pragmatic, with a special focus on refugee children. As Hayes says, “When you look at these children, you see abilities, you see aspirations. The future of the nation depends on them. Without the chance to study, an entire generation will be at risk”.

Abhijit Mohanty is a Delhi-based development professional. He has worked with the indigenous communities in India and Cameroon, especially on the issues of land, forests and water.