“Don’t get tired of us, we want to work, we want to send our children to school”

Suzanne Keating, Plan International Ireland's Head of Programmes visited a refugee camp in Timangola in eastern Cameroon last week to see our work, funded by Irish Aid, supporting vulnerable refugees from CAR.

Don’t get tired of us, we want to work, we want to send our children to school

The heartfelt words of the leader of the 7000 refugees in Timangolo camp, eastern Cameroon, that I visited last week.  His plea surely rings true for the estimated 50 million refugees throughout the world.

But it is a message that appears to have fallen on deaf ears at the lacklustre UN Finance for Development summit that also took place last week in Addis Ababa. The summit, a critical precursor to the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals in September, appears to lack any specific proposals to finance these far reaching goals to end poverty and injustice.

The refugee crisis in Cameroon is one of the least known, but it’s where money and attention is needed urgently. Plan International Ireland has been working there for over four years with the support of the Irish people, through Irish Aid – the Irish Government’s Overseas Development agency. It’s estimated that 228,000 refugees have fled across the border from the Central African Republic (CAR) to the east and from Nigeria into the north of the country.  The situation in the north continues to worsen daily – a consequence of the failures to manage the Boko Haram insurgency.

In the east, the refugee situation is relatively stable with only a trickle of new refugees coming across the border as the fragile ceasefire holds in CAR. However, the prospects of returning to their homes in CAR is almost non-existent, at least in the medium term.  Their immediate needs are mostly being met, thanks to the tremendous aid effort, which started in 2004 with the first major influx of people, but more must now be done to help free them from the dependency of aid handouts.

Traditionally cattle herders, these refugees want to find similar farming opportunities but it’s hard to see where they will come.  Naturally the host communities are reluctant to give away their land and scarce resources.  Private sector opportunities, beyond small scale informal trading, may be even less palatable.  A gold mine has recently opened up in the district incentivising many refugee families and their children to leave the camps in search of work.  As a result, Plan noticed a dramatic decrease in the number of children coming to school.

Sadly, money speaks louder than education, even if the wages are meagre.

I was left wondering if this would be the next disaster to face Cameroon.  As we learn from so many other parts of the world, it takes political will to stand up to the attraction of short term gain. Neglecting education for young people never leads anywhere except disaster.

Plan International Ireland’s focus is on education and child protection in the refugee communities. Initially, the challenge for Plan was to encourage parents to send their children to school, particularly girls.  Very few had ever been to school – formal education is almost non-existent in CAR – and for these predominantly Muslim communities, girls learning how to become good wives, rather than good citizens is the priority.

The statistics speak for themselves:  CAR is ranked as the second worst for early child marriage, with 29% of girls marrying before their 15th birthday, according to UNICEF (2012).  Cameroon fares only slightly better. On average, 1 in 3 girls marry before their 18th birthday, according to the Girls Not Brides partnership but in the north this figure rises to over 70% due to local traditions.

The Early Learning Centres that I visited, supported by Plan, were brimming with children from four to eleven years old, all eager to learn.  Over the last year, the teachers have seen a huge change in the confidence of their pupils.  Beatrice, an assistant teacher, told me how she had seen a huge change in the children:

Before the kids would not join in, but now they are singing and laughing all the time.  They love coming to class.

The priority is to teach them French so that, in time, they can attend the local public schools in the nearby villages.  It’s a simple reminder of how crucial language is in enabling refugees to feel more comfortable and safe. Some things in development can seem so simple:  provide a safe place, a roof over their heads, and basic means of communication. With these in place, both hope and potential can return.

Improving the lives of displaced people and people in poverty needs both short and long term responses. It’s ironic to learn that more and more donors are diverting development funds towards emergency work. While more tangible and immediate, it’s short sighted as experience shows the best way of dealing with a crisis is to prevent it in the first place. Building resilient communities will allow us to deal with both the causes and symptoms of poverty.

Of course there are no easy answers, or simple solutions:  like the people we aim to bring out of poverty – it’s complex. One thing is for sure, we cannot afford the luxury of getting tired.  I left with memories of families doing their best to break out of the cycle of poverty, with self-reliance, enthusiasm and hope.  Political leaders, donors and aid agencies can’t afford to let them down.