08.09.134:45 AM ET

Sudan’s Smartest Girl

Tagwa al-Hum earned the highest marks on her country’s national exams—but fighting drove her family to a refugee camp with no secondary schooling. Rebecca Rattner reports from South Sudan on Tagwa’s hopes for her future and the bleak road ahead.

On September 3, 2011, Tagwa Badredine Al-Hum’s family was celebrating a holiday near their hometown of Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile state in Sudan when airstrikes began to pound the city. The family packed their few belongings—along with 13 cows and goats—and fled to a refugee camp across the border in Ethiopia.

Eventually, the relatives ended up in Gendrassa, a camp in the Maban County of South Sudan. Tagwa, now 16, recently graduated from the camp’s primary school. Back in Damazin, as the daughter of a teacher and a businessman, Tagwa excelled in school—she earned the highest marks in the entire country on South Sudan’s most recent set of standardized tests. But in Gendrassa, she can no longer study English because she has surpassed the level taught at the camps. And because of her years being shuttled between refugee camps in Ethiopia and South Sudan, she’s fallen behind on the national curriculum. To catch up, she must go to school for 15 hours a day, rising before 6 a.m. and getting home after midnight.

Tagwa dreams of becoming a journalist, so she can write stories about what happened to her people and her fellow refugees. Alone in her tent at the camp, Tagwa speaks of her home back in the Blue Nile, her fondness for reading, and her hopes for the future. “When I grow up and go to university and achieve the dream that I dream,” she says, “the first story that I will write will be about the life we are living today—the war and air raids and all kinds of bombs. The children starving and the bitterness of war and death everywhere and all the evil we live through. I will write about every bad thing I saw in my life.”

But her only chance of going to secondary school would require going to a boarding school in Juba or another big city, which would cost her family around $300 annually—a prohibitive expense. And without further prospects for education, Tagwa fears that she will soon be married off.

Tagwa’s plight is common for the girls and boys living in Gendrassa. Getting textbooks has been difficult for the camp and when they do arrive from the government, they are often out of date and there are never enough. Complicating matters, South Sudan has instituted a new curriculum this year, which requires new textbooks. There is a shortage in the camp and as a result, the students are being taught the same things they learned in years past.

The biggest challenge, however, lies in recruiting teachers. While there are a number of trained teachers among the refugee population, the camp education administrators cannot pay them substantially more than the teachers at local South Sudan schools are paid—and so most of them find jobs with local NGOs instead. “We can’t give very high salaries to the teachers because otherwise the South Sudanese teachers, they will come and work here,” says Dominika Kronsteiner, the Upper Nile Area Coordinator for Intersos, an Italian aid organization contracted by UNHCR to run education in the camps. “And then we take away from the education system of South Sudan, which will create a big problem in the country—and of course also, with the Ministry of Education, they will not be happy with us if suddenly all the South Sudan teachers come and work here.”

With a shortage of teachers already plaguing South Sudan, “the teachers that come to work in the camps are not all really qualified,” says Dominika. “They provide training and English classes for teachers, but that takes time.”

Tensions over the shortage of qualified teachers are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to larger strains between the refugee population and the local host community in Maban County. As inhabitants of a poor and sparsely populated region, the Mabaanese suffered greatly during the second Sudanese civil war, which culminated in the independence of South Sudan. Many can recall watching their homes destroyed, parents killed, and siblings lost or stolen.

During the fighting, an estimated 20,000 Mabaanese fled the region, with most heading to refugee camps in Ethiopia. With their much darker skin and different language, the Sudanese refugees were easily identifiable and discriminated against. Many of the displaced also lacked adequate food supplies, medical services and schooling.

When a peace agreement was signed in 2005 and the independent state of South Sudan created in 2011, many Mabaanese returned home—only to be met by refugees from Blue Nile fleeing from government airstrikes across the border in Sudan. As the Mabaanese struggled to rebuild after years of war, with very limited resources and international assistance, more refugees arrived from the north every day. Their numbers—over 110,000 at present count—swelled the camps and drew hundreds of national and international NGOs to the area. The international assistance is far greater than what the Mabaanese experienced in Ethiopia, and a recent NGO report showed that, thanks to monthly food rations, the refugee population now boasts a higher level of food security than the host community. And while there is emergency aid funding for refugees—many of whom came from relative affluence before the bombing started—similar assistance for the Mabaanese is characterized as development, which finds far less funding.

The population surge has also coincided with an increase in crime, disease, and shortages of resources, including wood, which is crucial for cooking fires. Vast deforestation has forced refugee women to walk further and further each day to collect wood, often several hours each way. There have been reports of rape and sexual harassment.

At first, the people of Maban welcomed the refugees and sympathized with their plight. During the long war, the Blue Nile residents had been their allies, united together against the government in Khartoum. But as tensions over resource distribution have spiraled, conflict and violence—including one incident in September in which 20 people were injured and one killed—have broken out between the refugees and the Mabaanese.

With no end in sight to the war in Blue Nile, the future looks increasingly grim. With international attention focused elsewhere, the Sudanese military continues to drop bombs, raze villages, and detain, torture, and murder those who remain in the region.

Back in Gendrassa, Tagwa is worried that if she can’t continue her education, she is nearing the age at which she’ll be married off. She hopes that her parents won’t force her to wed and that somehow, a miracle will occur that will allow her to go back to school. “There is a lot of early marriage going on in the camps,” says Dominika. Even though it is illegal, she says, girls as young as 13 are married off “for financial reasons.”

“Once they’re married off, they’re done,” she says. Education is no longer an option.

Tagwa has a different vision for her future. “I want to be a big journalist,” she says. “Anywhere … I want to go to France … I want to go to learn. To study in English.”

“I see it on TV. I like it. Can you help me?”


In response to this article, the UNHCR has agreed to dispense donated funds towards Tagwa's education. To donate, click here