Gatwal Gatkuoth, 29, is a young South Sudanese peacebuilder and founder of Young Adult Empowerment Initiative (YEI), a nonprofit that empowers young men and women to create peaceful society and drive socio-economic development in local communities in South Sudan and in Uganda’s refugee Settlements. In April, Gatwal was invited to brief the UN Security Council on youth, peace and security, where he called for greater youth inclusion in peacebuilding. In this blog, Gatwal shares the story about the important role education played in shaping his activism and the need for greater investments in peace education.
Building back better from COVID-19, means focusing on peace.
Around the world, COVID-19 pandemic has continued to disrupt the education of millions of children, adolescents and youth. Many of these children, including refugees and migrants. Those without access to remote learning, are at particular risk of losing the opportunity of losing the foundational skills that they will need to develop and thrive. International actors, including the UN and UNICEF, have therefore rightly focused on ensuring continuity and access to education in their response.
However, many are also seeing this crisis as a unique moment and an opportunity to reimagine the role of learning and access to education. Yet, as organizations like UNICEF work to support a more relevant and ambitious education agenda for our world, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of another dimension that is needed for this reimagining—the need to unlock education’s potential for young people and for peace.
Many young people around the world, like myself, have witnessed the deep challenges of our educational systems. We have been calling for the creation of more equitable and inclusive education systems that actively promote the values of respect for diversity and peace. We have also called for investing more in creating education pathways and opportunities that provide children, adolescents and young people with the skills and capacities to meaningfully participate in building more inclusive and peaceful societies. This, to me, would be the meaning of “building back better” after COVID-19.
I would like to take a moment to share my story: to tell you about how, as a refugee fleeing the war in Sudan, I was lucky to have had education play this transformative role for me and how it has enabled to continue this process by working with children, adolescents and youth to build peace.
My story: A journey from displacement to a classroom
Nearly 18 years ago, at 11 years of age, I fled my village of Fangak, Sudan (South Sudan) leaving my parents behind following heavy assaults on our cattle camps by an armed group believed to be Sudanese armed forces. After a few weeks of long distance walks, my group arrived in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in White Nile State, Sudan. There was enormous hardship in these camps for unaccompanied minors like myself.
But before fleeing my village in 2001, I learned English Alphabets in a school under trees’ shades – 3 hours away from my home. Blue backpacks with a big bright word UNICEF were distributed to a small group of children including myself. Notebooks with a dozen pages each, cut into equal halves because they were not enough for every child. There were no blackboards and chalks, so we used the ground to practice writing and in some cases cow-hides leaned against tree trunks and charcoals for chalks.
However, I dropped out before long basically because; I) the nearest school center was several kilometers away, so, I could not walk through muddy swamps every single morning especially during the rainy season, II) being the firstborn boy, I had the obligation to take my family’s herd to riverside cattle camps together with other boys of my age during dry season, and most importantly III) an insurgency was intensifying that year, my father could not allow me to go out of his sight for school.
After a couple of years wandering from one IDP camp to another, I finally crossed to Uganda as a refugee in 2005 and I was about 14 years of age. I began to experience positive change in my life in 2007 when I got a sponsorship that moved me from the camp to a boarding school in Kampala. In about 6 years, I had access to quality education in a peaceful and support environment for the first time.
Being the oldest child in my class and probably in the entire school, it was hard for me to adapt. But I think this gave me a sense of purpose to focus on my studies as I reflect on my past experience to set future goals. At first, it was challenging playing with other kids who nicknamed me a refugee and laughed at my struggle with English. But my teachers truly understood my pain and prepared me to cope up through counselling and involvements in class activities. Soon I made many friends in the school. At this stage of my life, I began to imagine many future possibilities that include becoming a peacebuilder and community organizer.
In 2010, at about 18 years I managed to return to South Sudan after nearly 10 years and reunited with my parents for a few weeks and returned to Uganda for my studies. Following the eruption of 2013 South Sudan’s civil war, I once again become a refugee, for the second time in Uganda and I actively got involved with the refugee communities.
Working to empower a new generation of peacebuilders
Civil war has been a defining part of my life. Like many other young people around the world, I was committed to ensure that my peers and my own children would not live in a world of violence and displacement that I had experienced. I saw it as an obligation to speak out and work for them.
In February 2015, my colleagues and I started a youth-led organization in Uganda aiming to support and empower adolescents, young men and women in Uganda refugee settlements and in South Sudan to help shape a more peaceful future for the country and drive social development in local communities. For adolescents and children, my organization conduct peace education, organize sports for peace and other peace games, offer psychosocial support, and career talks in refugee schools.
It’s encouraging to see children unlearned violence through alternative peace games and psychosocial support we offer as they begin to find school environment and their friends very supportive. Many adolescent girls normally drop out of schools when they cannot afford sanitary hygiene items, to keep them in school, we support them through awareness-raising campaigns on sexual and reproductive health and we distribute 750 sanitary towels every year.
In our daily work, we see the concrete connection between education and peacebuilding. We see how education can act as a platform for the empowerment, voice and actions of children and young people for the benefit of their communities. For this reason, in 2018 my organization initiated a youth empowerment scholarship to support the education of unaccompanied refugee minors, especially girls in Ugandan refugee camps. We are currently paying tuition fees for ten 10 South Sudanese children in Ugandan refugee camps.
For us every live touched and transformed is a victory, but we collectively need to reach more children and young people. International organizations like UNICEF have an important role to play to help societies unlock the peacebuilding potential of education for children and young people, everywhere, and to support them as agents of change.
In his first report on youth, peace and security of March of this year, the UN Secretary-General wrote: “education represents a key pathway to shaping the prospects and opportunities of young people and serves as a powerful social engine for peace and resilience.” At this moment, when education and learning are being disrupted, uncertainty abounds and social divisions and inequalities are on the rise, this work is more important than ever.