A framed photograph of James Tut, in cap and gown and receiving his Bachelor’s degree, takes pride of place at his home in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region. It captures one of the proudest moments of the 42-year-old’s life.

“I was very happy,” says the South Sudanese refugee. Given half a chance, he added, he would go on and study for his Masters.

For every student, graduating from university is a cause for celebration – but for a refugee like James, it is a genuine triumph over the odds.

Only three per cent of refugees are enrolled in any form of tertiary education, compared to 37 per cent of their non-refugee counterparts globally.

For those who have fled conflict in South Sudan, the proportion is smaller still. James had hoped that with a degree in Community Development and Leadership from the University of Addis Ababa, he might find employment with the government of South Sudan.

But by the time he finished his undergraduate studies in 2014, war had intervened and he had become a refugee in Ethiopia. Later, his family managed to flee South Sudan and make it to the Gambella region, where they were all reunited.

“80 per cent of the population is illiterate – imagine.”

While he can’t return home, a university education has stood James in good stead. For the past few years, he has been Vice-Principal of one of four primary schools in Gambella’s Jewi refugee camp.

As a degree holder, James is living proof of what refugees can achieve given the chance. © UNHCR/E.Soteras Jalil

“Our country is the world’s youngest nation, yet 80 per cent of the population is illiterate – imagine. If you have more illiterate people with each passing generation, you have a problem,” he says.

Years of violence in South Sudan have been a disaster for the nation’s children and youth. Two-thirds of all South Sudanese refugees are under the age of 18.

Only 67 per cent of them are in primary school in Ethiopia, compared to an international average of 91 per cent. It gets worse as they progress to the next academic level, with only 13 per cent enrolled in secondary education, compared to 84 per cent globally.

Education for refugees was already a major challenge and a UNHCR report now warns the twin scourges of COVID-19 and attacks on schools, targeting teachers and pupils, threaten to destroy many hard-won gains and could set education efforts back decades.

The report also warns COVID-19 could irreparably harm the chances of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 – ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all – refugees and non-refugees.

As a degree holder, James is living proof of what refugees can achieve given the chance. But every day he goes to work, he is all too aware of the problems his pupils encounter daily. He wishes there was more training available for his teachers, and more funds to pay them better. Many quit, saying the 805 birr (AUD$30) they receive monthly as an incentive to teach is not enough to live on.

Overcrowding in the classrooms is also a barrier. Students are regularly forced to stand or sit on the floor because there are not enough chairs and desks. And now with the health protocols required for school reopening during the pandemic, overcrowding may lead to students being forced to drop out.

Without an education, generations of children risk growing up without the skills they need to rebuild their lives, their countries and their communities. © UNHCR/E.Soteras Jalil

James also worries girls are more likely to miss out on education than boys because of early marriage in the camp or because they are required to stay at home to prepare food or work in the market stalls. Despite the pressures, schools in Jewi do their best to keep girls in the classroom.

“If we see girls dropping out of school, we organise PTA [parent-teacher association] teams to go into the community to persuade parents, especially mothers, to send their children to school.”

Without an education, generations of children risk growing up without the skills they need to rebuild their lives, their countries and their communities. James is determined that his own children – three boys and two girls, aged between 18 months and 14 years – will avoid this fate. He has pledged to do everything in his power to ensure they will enjoy the same level of education he has had, no matter the odds against them.

“Children are the future of our country.”

His wife is also a teacher and is currently studying at a teacher training college to get her qualifications.

“I have been able to transfer the benefits of university to my family and my children. I want the same for my children. I plan for my children to reach where I have reached whether we are still refugees or we return back home to South Sudan,” he says.

“You educate your children for them to make their lives better ... Children are the future of our country. When we return to South Sudan, they will build our country.”

James has pledged to do everything in his power to ensure his children will enjoy the same level of education he has had, no matter the odds against them. © UNHCR/E.Soteras Jalil

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