Chad: "We Would Like Some English Dictionaries"

By Camilla Olson

Two years ago I tried to visit Darfur to conduct an assessment mission with Refugees International, but was blocked from traveling there by the government of Sudan.  Now, on the other side of the border in eastern Chad, I’m finally getting a chance to speak with people from Darfur, forced to flee their homes because of the conflict in the western part of Sudan.

While information about the latest violence in Darfur continues to make the headlines, most of the Darfuri refugees in the camps near Bahai and Goz Beida that my colleague Erin Weir and I spoke with have been in Chad for at least 5 years, if not longer.

For these Sudanese refugees living in eastern Chad, the humanitarian crisis is long over.  While access to water is a constant source of concern – no surprise given that water is scarce in this part of the world – the humanitarian situation for the refugees, in general, is stable, thanks to the interventions of United Nations agencies and international aid groups.  In fact, access to some assistance like education and health care is far better for the Darfuris in eastern Chad than it ever was in their home areas in Sudan.   

In the Djabal camp outside of Goz Beida, I met a 16-year-old refugee named Suleiman.  He was 10 when he fled Darfur, but he said he remembers everything perfectly --how the government attacked his village and how members of his family were killed. Suleiman never attended school in Darfur, but here in the camp he is dedicated to his studies and is currently in primary school.

Suleiman first approached us while we were walking around the camp and spoke some words in English, which he had learned from one of the aid workers in the camp. Classes in the primary school are taught in Arabic, but Suleiman clearly wants to learn English as well -- he told me that the students would really like some English language dictionaries. He said one day he hopes to be a journalist or a minister.  He wants to return to Darfur, but only after the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, is no longer in power. 

Most of the Darfuri refugees we met in the camps told us that they wish to return home.  But they are very aware of the continued insecurity in their home areas, and of the actions of Bashir – news travels quickly to the camps via TV, radio and cell phones, and by those who still go back and forth across the porous border. 

Darfuri refugee children are greatly benefiting from being able to attend school in the camps, however school supplies and teacher salaries are inadequate, and access to secondary education remains difficult. Increased donor support for education programs in the refugee camps in Chad is vital for young Darfuris like Suleiman, who hope to one day return home and rebuild Darfur, once peace and security are firmly in place.