Alaak’s story

Students help put away the blackboard that Alaak made for them.

UNHCR/Frederic Noy

Educating South Sudan’s Next Generation

After fleeing the conflict in South Sudan, a devoted teacher spends his own savings to open a school for refugee children in Uganda.

Alaak’s story
  • Written by
    Lucy Beck
  • Photos by
    Frédéric Noy
7 May 2015 7 May 2015
South Sudan Uganda

The sun is still rising over Uganda’s Nyumanzi refugee settlement, but 31-year-old Alaak is already hard at work, preparing lesson plans for the day. Teaching, he believes, creates new possibilities. “South Sudan has been at war a long time, and we need to bring up the young generation,” he says. “They are the backbone of tomorrow.”

Nearly 17 months after violence erupted in South Sudan, this refugee settlement in northern Uganda has become a dense, thriving community. Alaak, who arrived in July 2014, is one of the many residents who have fuelled its transformation. Using his own savings, he set up a school that has attracted more than 500 refugee children.

“A teacher is the one to open your eyes to see what you can become,” Alaak tells me, as we make our way into one of the shaded, wooden huts that now serve as classrooms. “I am sweating to open the way for them and I am sure there is a leader among them.”

Outside, South Sudanese refugee children from three to 14 years old are beginning to arrive, hauling brightly coloured plastic chairs over their shoulders so they will be able to sit down. They start the morning with prayers, which Alaak hopes will encourage them to live peacefully together. “They see that the life of hitting one another is what has displaced us, and they see here that when you love one another things are good,” he says, smiling.

Alaak arrived at Nyumanzi settlement with little more than his teaching certificate from South Sudan and a pocketful of cash. In less than a year, he has touched the lives of hundreds of children, offering hope and a future while they are stranded far from home.

However, in a settlement where 60,000 are in need of education and 70 per cent of new arrivals are under the age of 18, Alaak’s school is starting to feel the strain. He has already spent what little he had managed to save on materials and construction, and now, as funds run low, must search for ways to expand the classrooms, buy text books and hire trained teachers.

“They see that the life of hitting one another is what has displaced us, and they see here that when you love one another things are good.”

Alaak began his own schooling as a refugee at Kakuma camp in Kenya. Education, he says, is crucial in raising a generation of informed and skilled people, he says, and also as a way to help children deal with the horrors they have witnessed. He teaches exclusively in English, in line with Ugandan standards, and to start them on what he considers the most useful language from a young age.

“War brings mental disturbances to children,” he says, as the class gathers for a science lesson. “If you give them education, they will grow up with a healthy brain.”


At midday the school takes a break, and pupils form an orderly line with their cups at the water pump. They guzzle happily. Keeping hydrated is important here, with temperatures averaging around 35° Celsius throughout the year. Previously there were problems accessing groundwater, and refugees sometimes had to queue for hours, or even days, just to fill a single jerrycan. Now, thanks to combined efforts from UNHCR and partners, there is enough water for all.

The local Ugandan community has been generous to the refugees living in Nyumanzi settlement, providing land for free and sharing resources. Many know first-hand what it’s like to be a refugee, after fleeing to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 1970s. “I feel good because we have a good friendship,” says Alaak. “They greet us as brothers and sisters.”

After hearing about Alaak’s school, one local landowner, Peter Kenyi, offered a piece of land so the school could expand. As a teacher for over 20 years, and a refugee for six, Kenyi sees great value in refugee education. “The backbone of the family is the children,” he says. “They are the key to everything. We have a motto here in Uganda that children should be educated so they can be self-reliant in their lives and do something for themselves.”

With help from the local community, as well as UNHCR and its partners, Alaak’s school has a bright future. For Alaak, teaching young refugees is both a passion and a duty. “I cannot just keep my knowledge without giving it out and sharing,” he says.