Veteran Sudanese educator launches his own learning centre to give young refugees lessons in English – and peace – at Ethiopian camp.
By: Diana Diaz in Sherkole Camp, Ethiopia
Alnur Burtel may be an old man now, but he still remembers how his university teachers at home in Sudan inspired him to live a good life and study hard for a better future.
Now, in the Ethiopian refugee camp where he has lived since 2011, the 71-year-old seeks to be a similar guide to young Sudanese who have also ended up here. It is a place where inspiration and motivation can be in short supply.
“Education is instrumental for life and development,” says Burtel, from his Light Language Centre at Sherkole camp in western Ethiopia. He built the small one-room education centre himself, and teaches English and civics to teenage and young adult refugees who lack proper schooling or vocational training.
“Young refugees are wasting their lives, doing nothing,” he adds. “It’s time to end these problems. These young people are the future of our countries.”
Back home in Sudan, Burtel taught English at local high schools and at Omdurman University. “I thought, let us feed their minds. If I succeed at changing the life of just one, that will make a difference.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which helps manage Sherkole camp, where Burtel lives alongside more than 11,200 mostly Sudanese refugees, does its best to provide as much schooling as it can, but resources are stretched. UNHCR’s appeal for Ethiopia is only 35 per cent funded, with a US$181 million shortfall, meaning that education loses out to providing refugees with the basics like shelter, food, and health care.
That is where committed volunteers like Burtel are crucial to fill in the gaps. He and two fellow refugee volunteers teach 130 students English and civics, transparency, rule of law and what Burtel describes as “peaceful coexistence.” UNHCR and the Ethiopian government refugee agency, ARRA, have provided two blackboards and chalk.
Burtel is from Kauda, a town in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan’s South Kordofan region, where conflict broke out again between rebels and government forces in 2011. The day he and his wife fled, in June that year, was “a day when Nuban people were massively killed,” he remembers, with tears in his eyes. His two uncles were killed and his home was destroyed.
“I left everything behind except my knowledge,” Burtel says. “I have the dream of developing education services for the youth. I encourage them to learn from each other. It helps them uplift their self-confidence. I have many brilliant students who just need a bit of confidence.”
The Light Learning Centre has only been open since January 2016, but Burtel’s students already recognize the impact of his lessons and feel committed to further learning.
“I didn’t fully understand the importance of learning before,” says Sudanese refugee Emoel Yakub, 27. “With Alnur I am not only learning how to speak English, I understand why we must respect each other. We are becoming better and more responsible people so we can have chances of a better future.”
Yakub and several other graduates of the Light Learning Centre are now using what Burtel taught them, and teaching English themselves to refugee children in the camp.
Sirak Sileshi, a UNHCR protection associate at Sherkole, commends Burtel for adding these valuable lessons to his basic language curriculum.
“Alnur inspires refugees to pursue their dreams through education, whilst returning a sense of normalcy to their lives,” says Sileshi. “Given funding constraints, UNHCR and our partners are not always able to provide secondary or language education to refugees. We rely on volunteer work like Alnur’s for young refugees to fulfil their full potential, to recover their hope in life and to prepare for durable solutions in pursuit of productive lives.”
Burtel’s five adult children, aged from 21 to 35, all studied in Kenya thanks to scholarship programmes. They are poised to launch professional careers as teachers, nurses, and development workers.
The refugee youth at Sherkole constitute some 15 per cent of the population and are often at risk of violence and engaging in harmful coping mechanisms. Alnur hopes that he might also encourage a whole generation of young refugees at the camp to pick up the skills needed to find jobs when they can go home.
“I wish that the youth could convey messages of tolerance so that peace overwhelms our turbulent countries,” he says. “Education is not the only solution, but it is a start for our youth to contribute to their communities.”