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How tuition-free school transforms 100 children, stirs crisis at IDP camp 

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The internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Wassa, behind Apo in Abuja, have had many bitter experiences, including days of hunger, the anguish of displacement, and reminiscence of the conflict that forced them out of their homeland since they arrived at the camp in 2014.  While many of the adults are putting the challenges behind them and seeking sustainable means of survival, the future of hundreds of children in the community is threatened because they have never been to school.  But an initiative of the Nigerian government is changing the narrative of poor access, and affordability of schools at the settlement, reports the ICIR’s Marcus Fatunmole. 


No less than 100 children are enjoying free education at the Wassa IDP camp in Abuja through a transitional school funded by the Nigerian government. 

A cross-section of pupils at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children at Wassa Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

The pupils do not pay tuition; they get free uniforms, sandals, textbooks, and writing materials. They also enjoy free meals daily. 

 It has been a new lease on life for families displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency from their home state of Borno.  

 The Federal Government, through the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and IDPs (NCFRMI), built the school in 2021 to improve access for children in the community to education. 

 It is a pilot programme in five states, and the FCT with the potential to accommodate more IDPs children and children from low-income families in the future. 

 States where the programme currently runs are Zamfara, Bauchi, Cross River, Imo, Edo and the FCT. 

Some of the learning materials at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children at Wassa Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole
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The FCT school concluded enrolment in 2021 and started academic activities in January 2022. 

With a mix of trained teachers and locals, the make-shift school has two blocks of four classes, including a kitchen and toilets.  The Classes are from pre-primary and primary one to three. 

 The beneficiaries are among nearly 2,000 children of school age at the settlement. 

The Wassa IDP camp is home to IDPs, who fled largely from Gworza Local Government Area of Borno State because of insurgency, according to its chairman, Geoffrey Bitrus. 

 Bitrus said the camp had existed for eight years, and the school was the first it had got.

Cross-section of pupils at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children at Wassa Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

There are private schools around the community, but most IDPs cannot afford them. 

However, the only public primary school at Wassa takes a fraction of the IDP children and hundreds of others from the sprawling neighbourhood. 

How the government came up with the school  

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Following the increasing population of IDPs in Abuja from the North-East, resulting in inadequate access to education for children affected by the conflict, a non-governmental organisation, Maple Leaf Early Years Foundation, began an educational support programme for some of the children in 2016. 

Ifedima Nwigwe is the executive director of the organisation, her foundation built and manages the schools in the five states in Nigeria and the FCT. 

Executive Director, Maple Leaf Early Years Foundation, Ifedima Nwigwe.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

She said she had used a building at the Gwarimpa Estate in Abuja to provide educational support for 50 children at the Durumi IDP camp since 2016.  

She used her NGO’s bus to pick up children at the Durumi camp to Gwarimpa and returned them after school. 

“We felt let us start this before other persons come on board. It was self-funded for about three years before the Refugee Commission noticed what we were doing. They came to see for themselves what we were doing. 

“What we did here was that we would go to the camp and pick up the 50 children. We used our bus. The driver brought the children here in the morning. 

 We gave them breakfast and lunch and took them back home at the end of the day. 

Some of the dilapidated homes where IDPs at Wassa Abuja live.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole
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“Those that outgrew the programme, we enrolled them at Gwarinpa school here and continued to take them from the camp and return them to their parents.” 

She said the Refugee Commission was impressed by how she supported the children and then contracted her to build the six transitional schools. 

 Apart from free education for the children, Nwigwe said the school supported parents in acquiring skills to cater to their family needs. 

The Director, Resettlement and Duration Solution of the Commission, Kangiwa Musa, confirmed to the ICIR that his organisation engaged the NGO to build the schools. 

 “The programme is called transitional learning centre; transitional in the sense that we do schools at IDP camps or settlements. 

Signpost at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children, Wassa, Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

“Once there is displacement, people will stop going to school. If we say we will establish permanent schools everywhere, managing the schools will not be easy. 

“We transitionally established those schools; everything is free. Books are free, and feeding is free. They get everything free. 

We already have a memorandum of understanding (MoU). They have their roles; we also have our roles.”  

The role of Maple Leaf Early Years Foundation is to establish the schools, he said, adding that the Commission enrols the children. 

He explained that the Commission provides funds for feeding and pays the teachers. 

Front view of the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children at Wassa Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

He promised to visit the five states with the school and the FCT in a few days to appraise their performance and determine their expansion. 

The Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) provides the curriculum used by the schools, according to Kangiwa.  

 “Pupils can go as far as primary six to write common entrance to secondary schools,” he said.

When the reporter asked how much the Commission had invested in the programme, Kangiwa said the question was beyond him. 

“That one is beyond me. It is between the Federal Ministry of Finance and my agency. I cannot say anything about it.” 

 Marked difference between beneficiaries and IDP children not enrolled 

Children in the school are between the ages of three and eleven, and the classes are from pre-primary to primary three. 

Some of the children at Wassa IDP camp Abuja who were not enrolled at the Transitional Learning Centre loiter around during school hours.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

Some of the children can communicate in the English Language, unlike those who were not enrolled who only speak Hausa, their vernacular. 

Because they have special classes on hygiene, they appear neater than those not enrolled. 

Another distinction between them and children who did not benefit from the programme is that they look healthier because they are kept in a healthy environment, and they are fed in the school. 

Micheal Ayuba, a pupil of Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children, Wassa, Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

Some children who shared their joy with the reporter are 10-year-old Michael Ayuba, Ibrahim Mohammed, seven-year-old Esther Michael and Hafsat Yinusa. They are in primary three, three, two and one, respectively. 

All four children can speak and understand simple English Language, which they said they could not before joining the school. 

Esther Micheal, a pupil of Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children, Wassa, Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

Michael and her sister, Esther, were enrolled in the school from their family with seven children. Ibrahim is the only person in the school from his family with six children, while Yinusa is the only pupil from his family with four children.   

Nwigwe, the NGO’s executive secretary, also said about the changes the school has brought to the beneficiaries: “There is now a difference between children who are in our programme and children who are not. What is the difference? It is nothing extravagant. We are really doing everything as basic as possible. The children behave differently. They are taught proper manners, the right way to speak to people.” 

Hafsat Yinusa, a pupil of Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children, Wassa, Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

 School is a huge relief to our pains – Parents 

Parents interviewed aid the school would help their children live their dreams. 

Aisha Ali has three of her five children –  Hadiza (five), Buba (11) and Ali (nine) –  in the school. 

 The 28-year-old operates a grinding machine to support her family. She also farms. 

Aisha Ali, one of the parents at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children, Wassa, Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

She came with her husband, Ali, to the settlement in 2014.  

“Food free, uniform free, textbooks free, sandals free, everything free,” Ali said about what her children get from the school through an interpreter. 

Another parent, Rhoda Samson, has one of her two children, Sarah, a five-year-old, in the school. Her second child is a baby. 

Rhoda Samson, one of the parents at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children Abuja. She also works at the Transitional School.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

Rhoda works in the school as a support staff. She is also a farmer. 

 The 32-year-old came to the settlement in 2014. 

 “I am happy that I have a child in the school, and the school still pays for the work I do,” she told the ICIR

 The settlement’s leader, Geoffrey Bitrus, has two of his six children in the school. They are seven-year-old Felicia in primary one and ten-year-old King Solomon in primary two. 

Geoffrey Bitrus, Head of Wassa IDP camp.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

Dauda Yohannah also has one of her four children, Comfort, in the school. 

According to him, his three other children do not go to school. 

The 29-year-old farmers came to the camp in 2014. 

“The school has helped my family so much, ” he said, adding, “I want my remaining children to be enrolled because the school has relieved me of the burden of school fees and has given hope to my children.” 

Dauda Yohannah, a parent at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children, Wassa, Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

 How school causes storm in community 

 Children who did not benefit from the initiative have often attacked the school. 

Sometimes, they throw stones at their peers from the outside, although the school has a galvanized and vinyl-coated fence, and its gate is always under lock and key. 

Multiple sources in the community said parents whose children did not benefit from the programme were furious at the outset but were placated with a promise that the school would take more pupils the following session. 

One of the teachers at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children at Wassa Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

Nwigwe, the NGO’s executive director, also told The ICIR  how parents come to the school to know when it would be their turn to enrol their wards. 

“We considered family representation in the school. We have had issues with parents of children who did not benefit. They would come to the school to request how their wards would be part of the programme. 

 “We can only assure them that when there is an opportunity for expansion, we’ll engage them,” she stated.  

Some of the children at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children, Wassa, Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

She added: “We realise that the number we are providing the service for is really low. But we want to expand that number. This is a pilot project. We want to assess if we have met our goals. So far, we have achieved our goals.” 

The school head teacher, Dorcas Madumeye, said many parents at the camp shunned the call for enrolment of their children when work on the school began last year. 

Madumeye cited failed promises by the public and government for the IDPs as the reason they showed little interest in the programme at its outset. 

“Enrolment of pupils is on a first-come, first-serve basis,” she explained.  

Dorcas Madumeye, Head teacher, Wassa IDP Transitional Learning Centre

The ICIR reporter visited the camp twice. On each occasion, dozens of children not enrolled loitered around the school to watch their peers eat and play at their playground. 

They usually gather under a big mango tree near the school where they have a good peep at the classes. 

The school’s inability to enrol all the IDP children who desire to be there is a significant limitation of the initiative. 

Two mothers whose children were not enrolled shared their views with the ICIR.

Rabiu Mohammed has six children. Only one attends the community’s public primary school. Four are between the ages of four and twelve, and the last is a toddler. All the five children who don’t go to school stay with her in the house.

“My husband and I thought the school managers were here to deceive us like others who had come before them. When they came last year, we didn’t come out to register our children, the 37-year-old said. 

She added: “It is really painful that none of my children is enrolled in the school. But I hope they will make the next round.”

Comfort Aminu, 38, has none of her five children between the ages of four and thirteen in the school. Her husband doubted the programme when it was brought to the community. He registered none of his children for it. But his wife now regrets the action.

 “There is no parent who can see other children in the school and be happy when her children are at home doing nothing,” she told the reporter through an interpreter.

She said two of her children often loitered around the school during school hours.

Placing children in classes difficult for school managers

During the needs assessment before the school started, the school managers realised that some of the children were going to schools around the settlement.  But children who were supposed to be in class four or five only understood what children in primary one had been taught, said Nwigwe on the difficulty her NGO faced placing the children in classes. 

She said: “The first couple of weeks that we started the programme, it looked like chaos, but it was an organised chaos, moving and reshuffling and making sure that children would be in a place where they would understand what is being taught.”

Education, a must for the Nigerian child

Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) makes education a right for every child worldwide.

Nigeria is a signatory to the convention adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989.

Section One (a) of the CRC makes primary education compulsory and available free to all children.

Some of the learning kits at the Transitional Learning Centre for IDPs children at Wassa Abuja.
Photo credit: The ICIR/Marcus Fatunmole

But one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNICEF), even though primary education is officially free and compulsory.

 About 10.5 million of the country’s children aged five to 14 are not in school, the agency stated.

Because they do not go to school, out-of-school children are potential tools for criminal activities, trafficking, sexual exploitation and recruitment for terrorism.

As of February this year, UNICEF said terrorists had recruited over 8,500 children in the country to help wage war against Nigeria.

While the Nigerian and Borno State Governments are resettling some of the people affected by the Boko Haram conflict, many IDPs, like those in Wassa are yet to return home because there are still some pockets of attacks, making many parts of the state unsafe. 

This story has been supported by Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, solutionsjournalism.org

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