Displaced kids keen to gain knowledge

DISPLACED, battered and orphaned pupils at the Albert Street School in downtown Johannesburg have survived wars, HIV-Aids and economic hardships.

Established in July last year, the school opened its doors to refugee children after the xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg.

Situated at a Methodist Church building, the school is a haven to more than 500 refugee children.

"Following the xenophobic violence a lot of children came to the Central Methodist Church for shelter," says principal Alpha Zhou.

"Perhaps because of fear for their safety they could not go back to school. Bishop Paul Verryn decided that the children should be kept occupied."

The school was founded with 17 children and four teachers, but has since grown significantly.

"By the end of last year we had enrolled more than 200 children," says Zhou.

Because of its "open policy of not asking for documents or school records", the school has attracted hundreds of children from different African countries.

"At this school education comes first," says Zhou.

He says some of the children are unaccompanied minors who fled various hardships.

"Some either fled their homes or their parents died of Aids. Life becomes difficult if the country's economy has collapsed.

"Children would find it difficult to go to school or even get food. Families also break up because of the strain and children are forced to migrate," he says.

Zhou says that those who travel to Johannesburg alone are usually referred to the church or the school by organisations working near the borders such as the town of Musina near the border with Zimbabwe.

With children coming from as far as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Swaziland and Malawi, accommodating different languages is a challenge.

"Our children speak different languages but we are forced to teach them in English," says Zhou.

Albert Street School is, however, limited in other ways. The teachers are often forced to improvise with the little they have.

Without basics such as blackboards, desks and chairs, every inch of space is used, including the church pews.

The upper gallery of the chapel houses Grades 8, 10 and 12.

Some of the rooms are divided into two to simultaneously accommodate more than one class.

"We work with the basics here. Not even a single sheet of paper is wasted," says Zhou.

The children are taught in the Cambridge curriculum by 21 teachers, most of whom call the Central Methodist Church home.

The school depends on donations from the church, well-wishers and from the British Council for textbooks, stationery and uniforms.

l Omar Shinyale (not his real name) escaped a macabre life of killing and cannibalism in Uganda last year.

He was forced to join a rebel army as a child soldier after the death of his father.

"My mother fled to the Congo and I was left with my brother and sister," he says.

"I was given an AK-47. We were forced to shoot others if they would not follow the rebel leaders' orders. Sometimes they gave us human flesh as food," says Omar.

It took Omar and a group of children months to arrive in South Africa, with their escape taking them to Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.