Saturday, January 22

Refugee children wait years to enter school

“I still remember when my mom first told me that she was starting school. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had, ”says Divine, who is now 22 years old.

He was seven years old when his family left the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to come to South Africa. They arrived in June 2006 and struggled to find places in public schools. Divine, who was supposed to be in third grade at the time, spent the rest of 2006 and 2007 at home, “watching my neighbors go to school,” she says.

“We still did not have the specific documents and asylum permits that the schools required. We also didn’t have our previous [school] reporting, which was often one of the registration requirements. Private schools were not an option because of how expensive they are, ”he says.

Things changed for Divine and her family when they learned about Project Three2Six, an educational bridging project for refugee and immigrant children who cannot access state education in South Africa.

Three2Six was founded in 2008 when Sacred Heart College, a Johannesburg school, began a process of dialogue with the local community and discovered that immigrant children, specifically the children of refugees and asylum seekers, were struggling to get into schools, according to Charlotte Margerit, the advocacy, communication and stakeholder engagement officer for the project.

Based on the existing schools (the host school), Three2Six uses the school facilities between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM.

The project focuses on the elementary school level and generally stops at the sixth grade. Once students graduate from the project, they go to ordinary schools, according to Margerit.

Divine and her older brother were among her first apprentices, attending the Sacred Heart College campus for grades 3, 4, and 5. After graduating from the project, she returned as a volunteer until she enrolled. She is now the communications officer for the project.

During vacation programs, Project Three2Six students play sports, art, and drama. These activities are not part of your daily schedule due to time constraints. Image: supplied

The project depends on donors and volunteers and is free for students. They receive textbooks, stationery, and uniforms, as well as a meal and snack every day. Teachers who are also asylum seekers and refugees teach them math, English, and life skills.

“Three hours a day doesn’t seem like a long time, but if you plan your lessons well and manage your time, you can cover the content you need to cover,” says Justine Kimbala, Three2Six campus coordinator and one of the first teachers hired by the project.

She says being with people who shared similar struggles and understood her backgrounds made Three2Six “a second home” for her.

But for a time she was working at Rosebank sewing buttons on clothes, struggling to find a better job while awaiting verification of refugee status. He spent almost a month sleeping outside the Department of the Interior in Johannesburg to obtain his asylum permit.

The National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements curriculum is used and adapted for the three-hour instructional time. For example, “When you’re teaching math, you can include English skills by doing word additions with the class,” says Kimbala.

The project has grown from a campus with fewer than 100 students to include the Observatory girls’ primary school and Holy Family College in Johannesburg, which teaches 240 students. More than 2,600 children have attended the project since 2008. But hundreds are on the waiting list.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen some funds run out and there have been no international volunteers for nearly two years, according to Margerit.

“In 2018 we had just over 300 students in the project, but that number has decreased due to lack of funds,” says Kimbala. “It’s difficult because you know that all these kids on the waiting list are not in school and you want to do something but you don’t know what.”

Many refugee and migrant children still be unable to access public schools, despite a decision by the Makhanda High Court in December 2019 on the Admission of Students to Public Schools, which said that all children must be conditionally admitted to school while parents try to obtain documents.

This year, the project started a seventh grade class because children are struggling to get places after graduating from the project.

“I have applied for about eight different public schools, but since I don’t have all the documents, they don’t want to accept me,” says a student whose Zambian parents have been in South Africa for many years.

The lack of documents continues to be used to deny admission to schools for refugee and migrant children, says Kimbala.

© 2021 GroundUp. This article was published for the first time here.

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