Source: Save The Children
One of our fantastic staff on the ground, Ayse Kocak, describes a typical day in her role – supporting children in the ‘informal settlements’ on the Venezuelan-Colombian border.
6:00: An early, bright and hot morning in La Guajira and the town is slowly waking up. From my window I see street vendors selling coffee and arepa, a delicious regional dish of cornbread, filled with cheese and eggs, and I hear folk music playing in the distance. Soon I’ll be two hours away in a place where life is very different and very harsh for families living a hard life in informal settlements. Colombia is home to 1.7 million people who have fled Venezuela because of economic crisis and conflict. Among them are 80,000 children whose lives are on hold because they are not attending school. COVID-19 and lockdowns have made their distressing situation even worse.
Our temporary learning spaces normally offer education and safe havens for children aged 6 to 14, but lockdown closed them for six months. Our teams could only offer remote learning – a nearly impossible task in such tough conditions. But today these vital education space sare reopening and I’m travelling with our field manager Maria to support.
One of the children who attends the temporary learning centre.
7:00: Maria and I head off and drive north through the narrow streets to the dusty desert roads. Our first stop will be the ‘Villa del Laura’ informal settlement. As we travel, we talk about the impact of our temporary learning space closures. These Save the Children classrooms are so important. They open doors to formal education, and offer nutrition, health and child protection services. Unfortunately, the pandemic has severelyaffected the education of children living in these settlements.
We don’t know what we will find at the learning spaces today. How many children will return?
8:00: Here we are – Villa del Laura. It’s a collection of around 300 cardboard houses in the middle of nowhere on a very dusty stretch of road. The conditions are horrific. There is no water, light or rubbish collection and there are large drifts of garbage blowing around in the incessant wind. Save the Children has provided toilets and clean water to 21,244 people in these informal settlementsof La Guajira. But there is still so much to do to protect children from the respiratory and skin infections and diarrhoea that their terrible living conditions cause. Previously, I was based in Cox ́s Bazaar, in the world’s largest refugee camp where conditions were very poor. However, these informal settlements in Colombia are the worst I have ever experienced.
8:30: We walk through the settlement to our temporary learning space. Some people come out of their houses to welcome us and tell us how happy they are to see our classroom open for children again. During the lockdowns, we never stopped giving support to these children and their families. We safely maintained contact with families in these communities and we distributed food rations to prevent children finding other ways to meet their basic needs, such as prostitution or joining armed gangs.
Save the Children staff with one of the boys who attends the temporary learning centre.
As we approach the temporary learning space, we hear some encouraging sounds – children’s voices and wonderful, heart-warming giggles and laughter. And then we see them and my heart lifts. Dozens of children smiling and chatting happily in socially distanced lines beside the mobile handwashing unit.
Viviana, our Education Coordinator, smiles as she tells us that all 80 children enrolled for this classroom have turned up. I’m delighted.
This shows the trust the communities have in us and in the spaces we manage. And weare so happy to welcome children like Jaibelin, 14,and Louis Alejandro, 8, back to the temporary learning space after so many months. The day’s activities kick off with reminders on prevention protocols, and then the learning begins in this bright, cheerful space.
12:00: The first shift finishes and the children have big smiles and are full of energy. Outside, I meet some parents. They tell me how difficult the past year has been with lockdowns that have costthem their jobs and livelihoods. One mother tells me how hard it is to afford food and that it’s impossible for them to cover the cost of school – her children need notebooks, uniforms. Consequently, many adolescents have dropped out of education. It is heart-breaking.
13:00: Lunch with the learning space team in the office. I listen with amazement as they describe the challenges faced with remote education, as families in the settlements have no access to smartphones. The team was innovative and developed self-learning materials focusing on literacy, numeracy and social emotional learning for different aged children.
A teacher wears a face mask and points to letters of the alphabet to a group of children inside a classroom.
13.30: Next we call in at the Bendicion de Dios settlement. They too have welcomed a full group of children to both shifts. And the same is true of all three other settlements that we visit over the next two hours. Great news!
16:00: On our way back to the office, Maria and I reflect on the day. When we first arrived in Colombia, all settlement children were out of school, but 2.5 years after we started our response, there is so much to be proud of. All 1,500 children that we originally supported through our temporary learning spaces are now enrolled in the formal education system. Our education team has expanded from four staff to 12. We agree we need to increase our remedial classes as children have lost more than a year. We are also greatly concerned about adolescents dropping out of schools because of the costs involved. We urgently need to help get them back into education. But we also feel uplifted by the day and the turnout of students, the standards of activities, observation of COVID-19 protocol and the team’s morale and commitment. We talk about what Save the Children has achieved despite the challenges and although there is a lot more work to do, we feel very proud and motivated.