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The Power of Reading in Ethiopian Refugee Camps

A Plan International program in Ethiopia is ensuring that South Sudanese refugees maintain their cultural heritage and literacy skills.

Storytelling has always been an important part of Ethiopian culture, but refugee life has a way of threatening even the most ingrained of 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 her 8-year-old daughter, Babur, was the last thing on her mind.

“We’re living through a war,” she said. “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.

“While we know hearing stories helps them, it just wasn’t a priority.”

Since December 2016, however, Babur has been attending regular reading sessions at a Children’s Center set up by Plan International Ethiopia as part of We Love Reading, a pilot initiative launched in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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

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,” said Babur.

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,” said Babur, referring to one of the volunteer reading ambassadors. So far, 1,751 children have benefitted from the project, with many of them performing better in school and becoming more confident as a result.

The project will soon be replicated at other refugee camps across Ethiopia.

Gatwech Chuol Buop, a volunteer ambassador who also fled the conflict in South Sudan, believes stories are the best way of teaching children about their cultural heritage. He writes stories about the Nuer tribe who are concentrated in South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia and shares them at 30-minute reading sessions on Sundays attended by up to 350 children.

“The stories tell children about their ancestors – about their strength and struggles for survival and how they shared resources among the community,” he said.

The work brings him real happiness.

“From time to time, I see real changes in the children,” he said.

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