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How Refugee Children in Kenya are Continuing to Learn During the Coronavirus Lockdown

Amidst school closures and a partial lockdown in Kenya due to the coronavirus, teachers are broadcasting their lessons on the radio in Dadaab refugee camp

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“How do you spell the following words: priority, government, advocate?” Amina Abdi asks, leaning into a microphone at Radio Gargaar in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp.

The controller at the station plays a clip of upbeat music. Within seconds, the phone in the control room starts ringing.

Mohammed calls in with his answer, followed by Fatma, Hassan, and Khadija.

“Please tell us your name, where you are calling from, and what school you attend?” Amina asks each student, before they spell the words on-air.

217,000+

refugees live in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp

Amina, a Somali-Kenyan, is an English and Swahili teacher at Umoja Primary School in Hagadera camp, one of three camps within Dadaab, located in eastern Kenya and home to more than 217,000 refugees, primarily from Somalia. She’s worked as a teacher in the camp for the last eight years and has held various positions, including being an education partner through CARE Kenya. Typically, she teaches classes of up to 65 children at the elementary school.

The Kenyan government closed all schools as of March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, many students in Dadaab are staying home, turning on their radios and tuning into Radio Gargaar for their lessons from teachers like Amina.

Refugee children know education is the only way for them to continue their dream.

“Somalis usually like to listen to BBC in Somali, so every family here must have a radio to listen to the news,” Amina says. “We thought, let us also have our lessons through the radio so now we can reach every child in every corner of the refugee camp.”

Amina and fellow teachers spent a week preparing to teach on-air. They modified their teaching plans, learned how to write radio scripts, and got comfortable in front of the microphone.

Initially, Amina taught live lessons in the radio station to three students who joined her on-air. This format gave Amina an opportunity to simulate a classroom setting that she says encouraged students.

“The child at home would know… it’s not only the teacher who is teaching them, but it’s girls and boys who are teaching them too, so they would be happy,” she says.

And the students who volunteered on-air garnered attention from their peers. “When they go back home, other children would ask: Are you the one [at the radio station]? Were you the one who was teaching us?”

But even though they used proper precautions such as social distancing and hand washing during the initial broadcasts, Amina decided the safest approach was to keep the students completely remote. She opted instead to deliver the lessons on air and accept calls from students with their answers.

Photo: Amina Abdi

Although she misses teaching in a classroom setting,  Amina says this is a good alternative.

“They have that thirst of education… The children are listening, they are paying total attention and the lesson goes smoothly. And there is full participation. The class is so interactive and joyful,” Amina says.

Amina, who teaches grades four to eight, has students up to 19 years of age. For various reasons, many refugee children experience disruptions to their education. Now that they are in school, it’s imperative their education not be put on hold due to the coronavirus, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“[Refugees] know how devastating a disruption of education is. They have experienced it through their life as refugees,” says Eujin Byun, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Kenya. “They know education is key to having a better future, especially girl students.”

She says disruptions in education due to COVID-19 can “delay their dream,” of entering a profession and breaking the cycle of poverty.

Amina recognizes that the children have short attention spans which can make it challenging to learn through the radio, but she encourages them to take their studies seriously at this time.

“It’s only the school that is closed — not studying and revision, and not your books,” she tells them on-air.

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