Tabareybarey — When fighting in northern Mali forced Chouaïbou and his family to flee from their village last May to nearby Niger, the 15-year-old feared he had not only lost a home but also his education.
Chouaïbou, with his parents, three siblings and their neighbours, ended up in Tabareybarey camp, where they joined some 8,500 other Malian refugees, many of them children in need of education.
The UN refugee agency places a priority on providing access to education and is working with Niger's Ministry of Education, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and humanitarian aid group, Oxfam, to provide primary and secondary education for as many Malian refugee children as possible. More than 60 per cent of the 58,000 Malian refugees in Niger are of school age.
Although UNHCR has had to concentrate its efforts for Malian refugees on protection and life-saving activities due to limited funding, it has supported an education project in Tabareybarey, a refugee camp opened in May some 40 kilometres from the Niger-Mali border.
UNHCR has constructed nine classrooms which were ready to welcome 764 children and 12 teachers for summer classes run by local non-governmental organization Plan Niger from July to September. These were important in keeping the refugees occupied during a traumatic period in their lives.
And the children, under a unique initiative pioneered by UNICEF, get to have a say in the running of their new school, forming a "school government" with a ministerial cabinet. Chouaïbou was delighted to be named Minister of External Relations and enthusiastically got into the spirit of things.
The students in the cabinet work closely with a school council, which is composed of the school director and community leaders in the camp. "This initiative is very good for the morale of the children," said Hamidou Alidirou, the headmaster and a refugee. "When you work on something, you're focused and feel useful. You forget the difficult situation that brought us all here."
He said the children took their role playing very seriously. "It's important to create a positive dynamic for the children because we don't know for how long we're going to be here," Alidirou added.
The school cabinet has eight ministers, seven boys and two girls, and is headed by 14-year-old First Minister Mariam, whose proudest moment came last month when she welcomed a VIP visitor - Jan Knutsson, outgoing president of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee. He was in Niger to help raise awareness about the refugees and drum up donor support for them.
Knutsson, who finishes his year-long term as ExCom president in Geneva today, also met External Relations Minister Chouaïbou and Justice Minister Alassane, aged 10, who helps resolve disputes among his classmates.
Chouaïbou presented the school's 2012-2013 action plan to the Norwegian diplomat. "We want to be ready for the start of the school year in October so we had to make sure to have our strategy finalized," he explained, adding: "We have a lot of responsibilities as a government because we need to make sure that everyone feels they are a part of our programmes and participate."
Aashild Eliassen, a UNHCR education officer in Niger, welcomed the initiative, saying that to achieve the best results it was important for children and young people to participate in all stages of education planning. She looked forward to the coming academic year. As did Chouaïbou, who, nevertheless, said he would rather be a teacher than a politician when he became an adult.
Tabareybarey is one of five official sites hosting Malian refugees in Niger. The population displacement has come at a time when Niger and other Sahel region countries are suffering from a severe food crisis and devastating floods. The host country needs continuing international support.