Education during wartime

Not many humanitarian organisations count education in emergencies as one of their main activities. For the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), education has been a main priority for a long time.

"We include school and education in our humanitarian work from day one," says Annelies Ollieuz, NRC's global education manager. She admits, however, that this has not always been easy.

At NRC, education is as important to us as food distribution, shelter, camp management, counselling or legal aid. This is unique.

"Over the years, it has been a struggle to gain acceptance for our focus on education right from the very beginning of a crisis. Not all donors or local governments understand the importance of this. It's easy for them to say: 'We'll deal with schooling afterwards'."

Annelies Ollieuz, 42, has been our education leader for two years. She's originally from Belgium but moved to Norway 18 years ago. A social worker with a PhD in social anthropology, Annelies has never been a teacher, but has worked with education throughout her career. For many years, she worked in the field.

"I was in an emergency response team travelling from crisis to crisis and spent 300 days a year out in the field, often deployed on short notice. The work I did was mostly coordination. My job was either to set up or to strengthen the mechanism coordinating the entire crisis response, always in cooperation with local authorities." Today, she works at our head office in Oslo.

Annelies Oulliez, former NORCAP education in emergencies expert. She travelled from crisis to crisis. "I was working abroad 300 days a year, often leaving at short notice," she says. Photo: Eirik Christophersen/NORCAP

The importance of school

We are a Norwegian aid organisation that have specialised in working to give help and protection to displaced people internationally. We help people living in the areas where displaced people and refugees settle. By also supporting pre-existing communities, we avoid creating conflict when they see what we do for the refugees.

Today, we are active in 30 countries, and in total, we employ about 14,000 people. Several thousand of these work in educational activities. It is impossible for Ollieuz to know how many people she is working with at any given moment.

"Why is it so important to focus on education at the very beginning of a crisis?"

"There are several reasons for that. First and foremost, it's because we're talking about youth and children's futures. We also know that the longer a child is kept out of school, the less chance he or she has of returning. For this reason, limiting time away from school is incredibly important.

War creates chaos. From a child psychology perspective, it is important that all children have some routine to their lives. If children living in a warzone cannot go to school, the routine disappears, and they will have trouble recovering from the crisis," says Ollieuz.

War causes traumatised kids

We have specialised in helping traumatised children, through a collaboration with UiT, the Arctic University of Norway, and professor in pedagogical psychology Jon Håkon Schultz. This school programme is called "better learning". Through simple exercises, for example breathing exercises, the teachers help the kids help themselves. The programme has been a great success.

To focus on education at the very beginning of a crisis is important: First and foremost, it's because we're talking about youth and children's futures. We also know that the longer a child is kept out of school, the less chance he or she has of returning. For this reason, limiting time away from school is incredibly important.
Annelies Ollieuz, Norwegian Refugee Council

School provides protection to children and youth. For example protection from being recruited by armed groups, according to Ollieuz.

"We have examples from Congo, where children say, 'If I am wearing my school uniform, they leave me alone'. That being said, in some countries, we see armed groups recruiting in schools. Some kids have also told us, 'I was recruited, but my friends were not, and that's because I was at home and they were at school'."

Children don't belong passing the time in the streets, that can be dangerous. Instead, they should be in school where they are looked after. Furthermore, the leader of our education programme says that school is also helping parents:

"Life as a refugee is demanding also for parents. They often have to spend much time figuring out where to live. They may have to build their own shelter, or they may have to stand in line for food. If they have several children, it can be difficult to make ends meet in terms of the purely practical as well. It is therefore a help to them to be able to drop their kids off to school, knowing that they are there with responsible adults. That makes life easier."

Giving youth a future

In the humanitarian world, the main focus is almost exclusively children and not their youth counterparts just a few years their senior. If you are fifteen or older, there are no programmes for you. But we have, for years, had separate programmes targeting youth.

Previously, youths have, for example, been given job training, and after finishing their course, they have been provided with a diploma and then left to fend for themselves. According to Ollieuz, they will from now on also be provided with counselling and help to either find a job or continue with their education.

"Among other things, we will be providing the youth with counsellors that will help them realise their potential. Youth often need help with this," she says.

We stand apart from the rest when it comes to providing education for kids who are not allowed to attend regular school. Local education departments may say that if a child is over nine-years-old and has not attended school previously, he or she is too old to start first grade. In these cases, our teams intervene with alternative programmes.

In addition, in many countries, you have to show a birth certificate to be allowed to enrol in school. Many refugees and internally displaced people lack such certificates. Our employees help them acquire these papers.

NRC aims to include at least 50 per cent girls in class. It is also important to have female teachers – both girls and boys need role models. “We always try to recruit female teachers. But it is often very difficult,” says Ollieuz. Photo: Eirik Christophersen/NRC

How to include the girls?

We have a stated goal that at least half of all students should be girls. To achieve this, it is important to have female teachers, because both boys and girls need role models.

"We always try to recruit female teachers, but it is often very difficult," says Ollieuz.


"In some countries, teaching is a male dominated job, in others a female dominated job. In places where it is less common for women to take up paid work, we try to recruit women. We also have more long-term agendas. In Somalia, for example, we have supported girls by paying for their education, with the arrangement that if they finished high school, they would get a job teaching in one of our programmes."

"And then there are, of course, other aspects that are important when it comes to girls," Ollieuz continues. "Girls risk being harassed on their way to school and could, for that reason, choose to stay home. Additionally, their parents may not wish for them to attend school."

She says that our country team in Jordan has provided courses for youth volunteers, where they are taught how to protect kids and how to provide psychosocial support. The youths pick up girls and boys in designated spots so that they can walk to school in larger groups.

When girls reach menstrual maturity, it is important to make sure that the schools have adequate toilets.

"At this age, they often drop out of school entirely or miss school for three or four days every month. In these cases, we need to look at what it means, culturally, to be menstruating in the country, and what kind of facilities they need," she says.

We often find ourselves in a situation where there are few or no teachers left. In places where we do not have enough qualified teachers, we spread the word that we are looking to train people wishing to work as teachers. Providing good training to teachers is very important to us.
Annelies Ollieuz, Norwegian Refugee Council

A world-wide literacy crisis

Globally, many are worried about a widespread literacy crisis. The crisis is not limited to the humanitarian sector but is also seen in countries like Norway. Many children are unable to read or write upon finishing schooling.

"Of course, this cannot stand," says Ollieuz, as she brings up NRC's new education strategy.

"What's the main goal behind this strategy?"

"That children and youth everywhere should be safe when they are in school, and that they have acquired the skills they should have upon finishing our programme."

"But are we able to find qualified teachers?"

"That's not always easy. In a warzone, some people flee, and some people remain. Very often, you need resources to be able to flee, and teachers are often among those with resources. Therefore, we often find ourselves in a situation where there are few or no teachers left. In places where we do not have enough qualified teachers, we spread the word that we are looking to train people wishing to work as teachers. Providing good training to teachers is very important to us."

"At NRC, we have a long-term perspective in our humanitarian work – does this also apply when training teachers?"

"Definitively. For example, we wish to collaborate even closer with local education departments so that the teachers we have trained and employed through many years can have a chance of securing a permanent teaching position when the time comes for the public system to hire teachers."

"And when it comes to the students?"

"Everything we do is geared towards ensuring that the children will be entering the formal school system at a later date."

Annelies Ollieuz (42) has been head of NRC educational activities for two years. She is originally from Belgium, but moved to Norway 18 years ago. In the photo, she is in the capital of Liberia, Monrovia, to assist the Government in the Ebola outbreak of 2014/2015. Photo: Eirik Christophersen/NRC

Education at home

Where war has completely or partially destroyed school buildings, we build temporary classrooms and rebuild damaged ones. Sometimes we construct new schools. We train teachers, and we distribute school supplies.

In areas of war and conflict, both being at school, and getting there and home again, can be dangerous. Ollieuz says that, for this reason, our organisation also uses a teaching programme that can be used from home.

"In Syria, for example, we have school books written for children who are studying without teachers. In these cases, the book addresses the student as if it were a teacher, often something like 'Now you've worked very hard, so you may take a ten-minute break'," she says.

In cases like these, the student can work with a neighbour or a sibling, or with their parents. The material is adapted to the books used by teachers in classrooms, so when the students return to school, their teacher will know how far they have come.

"Sometimes children and youth flee to areas where there is nothing, not even a school?"

Annelies Ollieuz reaches out with her arms. "Yes, in these cases we start at the beginning," she says, smiling.

This means that our employees first map the needs of the children. Then they ask whether there are any teachers among the refugees, before spreading the word that they are starting a school in the camp.

"We at NRC are doing all this because we know that school can save lives and provide hope for the future, she says.