Is it safe to go back to school in Yemen?

Marwa Rasheed, 9, fled her home and now lives in Al-Meshqafa camp with her family. Her school and every other school in the country closed in March because of coronavirus, but now they are set to open again. ©Mahmoud Al-Filstini/NRC, 2020

As schools re-open in Yemen, parents are wondering how safe it is for their children to go back. Six years of war have taken a heavy toll on education, especially for displaced children, and the coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse. Together, the European Union and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) are trying to give children a chance to learn in a safe and conducive environment.

Here are five questions Yemeni parents are asking themselves.

1. Are schools safe?

Wadi Al-Kabeer school, one of the schools NRC works with, after the fighting. ©Sami Abdulmalik/NRC, 2020

Schools in Yemen have been bombed, damaged, destroyed or occupied even though they are meant to be protected under international law. As a result, one in five schools are no longer usable, according to UNICEF. Because of coronavirus, two-thirds of displaced children that were already experiencing extremely high levels of distress say they feel even worse now.

What are we doing? We have been repairing and repainting schools, and building additional learning spaces. Even during the school closures, teams have continued to upgrade the water and sanitation facilities allowing for handwashing and hygiene measures. We also train teachers in class management and child protection. Finally, we try to hold armed groups that attack schools accountable. This is something EU’s partner NRC works for at the highest levels and has spoken about at the United Nations.

2. Are schools ready to reopen?

Left: A class before NRC built new classrooms. ©Sami Abdulmalik/NRC, 2020. | Right: Mohammed in his newly repaired classroom at Al-Zaqriyah school, funded by the European Union. ©Abdulrazaq Mohamed/NRC, 2020

Widespread destruction has resulted in improper infrastructure, with pupils often having to sit on the floor or out in the open. Hundreds of thousands of children who fled the war have been squeezed into classrooms. Most don’t have textbooks, exercise books, or even pens. At home, many children don’t have access to electricity, television or internet, especially if they are living in a camp.

What are we doing? We fill the classrooms that we repair and the new learning spaces with desks, boards, and chairs, and even solar-powered lighting and fans. Children also receive notebooks, pencils, pens, erasers, crayons, rulers, and pencil sharpeners. Raghad, a teacher’s daughter, told us: “When I got home, I opened the bag to start arranging my notebooks for homework and lessons. I was so happy to have all these things to learn with.”

Raghad sitting in her newly-refurbished classroom, which had to close in March but will soon reopen. ©Abdulrazaq Mohamed/NRC, 2020

3. Where will children wash their hands?

An NRC staff member showing children how to wash their hands, in Al-Kharef camp. This community has water thanks to the construction of taps and a solar-powered system. ©Ibrahim Al-Salmi/NRC, 2020

This is especially important during a pandemic and in the context of Yemen, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. During the war, water tanks have been bombed and waterpipes started falling apart. Many schools don’t have bathrooms or running water. Soap is often a luxury. Parents want their children to be protected.

What are we doing? We build water points for students to get clean drinking water and toilets that are hygienic and safe. Every school, supported by the EU and the NRC, gets a hygiene pack for each child.

4. What about lunchtime?

Eight-year-old Sundus outside her school. ©Fatma Mohammed/NRC, 2020

Many children go to school hungry, making it difficult to concentrate during class. Sundus (8) was one of them. Her teachers say she’s smart and sensitive. She’s been through a lot, having been forced to flee the fighting. After her family was able to return home, they struggled to get enough to eat.

What are we doing? After Sundus joined Al-Shadely school, she received high-energy biscuits in class. “I like the taste of the biscuits and my siblings do too!” she says. School can offer a solution for children who can’t eat enough at home — a serious problem in Yemen, where two million people are at ‘crisis’ levels of hunger.

5. Are the teachers prepared?

Saeed with his daughters. ©Abdulrazaq Mohamed/NRC, 2020

Saeed is a headmaster at Saif Bin Dhi Yazan school. He isn’t paid. Saeed is one of six volunteer teachers at the school, who essentially run the classes for all 300 students. Saaed hires out his small motorbike and raises sheep to make a living.

Over 130,000 teachers in Yemen have not received a salary in four years. Communities often provide gifts of milk and food, but many teachers are surviving through odd jobs and small stipends from aid agencies.

What are we doing? NRC is one of several aid groups pushing for an agreement that would pay teacher salaries. In the meantime, the EU helps them support teachers with kits full of supplies, and trainings in class management, lesson planning and child protection.

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