Athieng, 20, is a gentle and quiet young woman who rarely talks about her difficult past. Conflict in her newly independent homeland of South Sudan forced her family to flee six years ago. Staying put would have placed their lives at risk.
Her family initially sought refuge in Kenya, but after two years they made the journey to Uganda to be closer to South Sudan, where her father remained. At this point, Athieng had missed out on many years of school and was looking at an uncertain road ahead.
Whilst living in Uganda, Athieng gave birth to twin daughters and has since returned to school. She is now juggling between being a single mother and completing her final year of primary school in an accelerated education programme for students that missed school in earlier years.
But Athieng does not crumble under the weight of responsibilities. “When I dream, I dream about my future,” she asserts, courageously.
We met Athieng in February 2020. This is a typical day in her life.
Uganda hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, reaching over 1.4 million in 2019. The majority of the refugees are from South Sudan, DR Congo and Burundi.
The country has unique laws and regulations that promote the safety of refugees and help to give them a better life. The Refugee Act of 2006 states that refugees have the right to freedom of movement and work, the right to establish businesses and the right to access public services such as healthcare and education.
The humanitarian needs in Uganda are great and relief work suffers from being heavily underfunded. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and other humanitarian aid organisations are doing as much as they possibly can to assist refugees. But with more financial support, so many more could be helped.
“This is where my morning starts”
Athieng lives in the Nyumanzi Settlement the Northern Region of Uganda and shares a simple home with her two children and two brothers. Her mother lives in another home on the family’s small plot of land.
Every morning, she wakes at 6.00. She brushes her teeth and gets ready for school.
“All our days are very similar,” Athieng shares. “I wake up and say goodbye to my mother and children and walk with my brother to school. I sure do miss my children when I am gone.”
Click on this 360 video to explore Athieng’s home:
The distance between home and school is around 1.5 km. Athieng walks there every day with her 14-year-old brother, who is in the same class. After all they have been through, she and her brother share an unbreakable bond.
“Life here is good because we are now in school”
Athieng and her brother attend the Norwegian Refugee Council’s centre for accelerated education. Classes are specifically designed for students who have previously dropped out of school, most commonly due to displacement.
Both Ugandans and South Sudanese attend the school, and there are around 200 students in the Accelerated Education Programme. Their ages range from 10 to 20 years old.
Athieng arrives at school every morning at 8.00. The first order of the day is to clean the school compound. Looking after the school is a team effort.
Following this, the students attend assembly where they sing and pray.
“My school means everything to me. My favourite subjects are English and science,” says Athieng.
Click on this 360 video to explore Athieng’s classroom:
Athieng has a huge amount of respect and admiration for her teachers at the school. Her Maths teacher, Mr Dugale, says that Athieng is a very active and organised member of his classroom.
“In the school community, Athieng leads assembly as a prefect. She organises her classmates for daily cleaning and helps teachers on duty to ensure discipline among her fellow children. She is always a jolly girl and likes discussing with her friends outside classroom,” shares Mr Dugale.
Life at school
Athieng is an open person and has made many friends at her school. Her friends are from both South Sudan and Uganda. “We talk about everything,” she reveals with delight.
Athieng comes from a community with traditional gender roles. But at school she says that it’s different. Men and women, boys and girls, not only study together, but socialise together too. “I think that it is good we are together. We are all the same, you know?”
But motherhood does not relent. During lunchbreak, Athieng walks the long journey home to feed her two daughters. This means that she is sometimes late back to class.
Athieng does not complain. She tackles everyday challenges with a determined smile. “This is what I need to do for my family.”
The school day ends at 16.00. But Athieng’s day is far from over.
“I go and change out of my uniform. I feed my children. After that, I help my mum.”
In 30C heat, Athieng heads out to retrieve water for the family, often with the help of her caring younger brother. The closest water source is 1 km away and is shared by a large number of families.
Click on this 360 video to see where Athieng collects the family’s water:
When she arrives back home, she cooks for the family, assists with cleaning within the family’s plot of land, and gathers firewood.
Despite having a safe and clean place the live, getting access to basic necessities such as food is a struggle. The family relies on nearby food distributions to survive. Athieng attends these herself once a month and collects 6 kg of maize flour, beans, oil and salt. Without this, the family would go hungry.
Once she has completed primary school, Athieng hopes to secure a scholarship place at a secondary school. Without this, she will be unable to pay for the school fees. Athieng holds strongly to the idea that this is possible with hard work. “I am a good student,” she says.
These steps will put her further on the road towards her ultimate dream – to become a nurse and help others.
“I have dreams, but I do what I have to do here in Uganda. I guess you have to do the same wherever you are,” says Athieng.
Achieving this dream will make it easier for the family to put food on the table. She hopes that it will also one day pay for her children’s education.
There are many roadblocks obstructing Athieng’s path. But thanks to her fierce determination, she is breaking them down. One block at a time.
With confirmation of the first case of Covid-19 in Uganda on 21 March 2020, the government introduced stringent measures to minimise the spread of the virus. Amongst the initial measures was closing of all education centres thus disrupting learning. This paved the way for distance learning programmes delivered through radio, TV, and self-study targeting children at home. However, there are challenges for refugees who do not have access to radio and TV sets.
For single mothers like Athieng, the pandemic continues to bring challenging moments, with restricted movements and reduced food rations, affecting her livelihood and may interfere with the continuity of her learning when school re-opens.
NRC’s Accelerated Learning Programme will continue to support Athieng and hundreds of other students so that they can continue to learn even as we respond to the pandemic.