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Boosting education for refugee children through reading

The We Love Reading project set up by Plan International and partners at UNHCR is helping South Sudanese refugee children read and share stories once more.

Gur Deng's sister reads a book to him at one of the reading centres in Kule camp.
Gur Deng's sister reads to him at one of the We Love Books centres in Kule camp.

Storytelling has always been an important part of Ethiopian culture, but refugee life has a way of threatening even the strongest traditions.

In the Kule refugee camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, home to more than 270,000 South Sudanese refugees since conflict broke out in their country in 2013, there are children who haven’t heard stories in years.

Nyakeata, a South Sudanese refugee who lives in the camp says that she was so fearful about her family’s circumstances that telling stories to their 8 year-old daughter Babur was the last thing on her mind.

“We’re living through a war,” she says. “How can we even think about telling folktales now? We’re worrying about how to be safe from the fighting and feed our children and ourselves.”

Instilling a passion for reading

Babur, 8, with her mother at the reading centre in Kule camp
Babur, 8, with her mother Nyakeata at the reading centre in Kule camp.

Since December 2016, Babur has been attending regular reading sessions at children’s day centre set up by Plan International Ethiopia as part of We Love Reading, a pilot initiative run alongside our partner organisation UNHCR.

As part of the project, which is dedicated to improving the reading, listening and analytical skills of the children living in the camp, 46 volunteers have been given books and trained to deliver sessions in reading and illustration and 40 reading circles and community libraries have been established.

Babur, who hasn’t missed a single reading session since the project began, says that her favourite book is about a boy called Kulang and his dog.

The project is encouraging children to tell stories orally to their peers. “I’ve told most of the stories I’ve heard to my sister and brothers and friends of mine,” says Babur.

Mothers can read with their children again

The women in the camp are also participating: many have begun to read to their children again, thanks to books borrowed from volunteers.

“When the dusk falls, my mum reads stories from the book I got from John,” says Babur, referring to John Majak, one of the volunteer reading ambassadors.

The number of children who attend my sessions has doubled in three months.

Majak, a father of 3 who escaped from South Sudan with his family in June 2014, believes the project is helping to instil a passion for reading in the entire community.

“When children see me from a distance with my story books, they run to the reading place and sit on the ground,” he says. “When I begin reading, they go quiet instantly and pay attention.

“Most of them are now so interested in stories. The number of children who attend my sessions has doubled in 3 months.”

Plan International has set up 40 reading centres in Kule camp, which reach over 1,750 children every week. 

In recognition of this success, the project will soon be replicated at other refugee camps across Ethiopia.

Learn more about the food crisis in East Africa which has forced South Sudanese families to flee