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Basamat Alnoor Jakolo Aldabi teaches school in the Kaya Refugee Camp in Maban County, South Sudan. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, 2018.

Basamat Alnoor Jakolo Aldabi still remembers a special teacher in a preschool class in the Blue Nile region of Sudan. “His name was Mohammed, and he used to bring me books to read. When I didn’t understand his lessons I would go and ask him and he would sit and explain it to me again,” she said. “That’s what I try to do for my students today.”

Now a teacher herself in a sprawling refugee camp in Maban, South Sudan, Aldabi remembers life in the Blue Nile village of Mak with fondness.

“We were farmers. We had food and animals. I was happy. When I was three, I went to live with my uncle in the village of Al-Gadir so I could go to school. I loved learning, and I wanted at an early age to become a teacher myself, to help remove illiteracy from my community. I wanted to help others be good citizens and know the difference between what is wrong and what is true.”

After completing primary school, Aldabi went to live with relatives in a different town in order to study in a secondary school. But war with the government in the north broke out in 2011 and disrupted her plans. As the Sudanese military sent Antonov bombers to rain terror on the Blue Nile, she and her family fled to refugee camps being established in Maban, South Sudan.

Aldabi quickly resumed her education in the camps, but that involved a change in language. She had studied in Arabic in Sudan, but the curriculum in South Sudan was all in English. It was a struggle for the young woman, but she persisted, and soon she was drafted to be a teacher herself. Aldabi spent part of each day in the classroom, and part in teacher training classes sponsored by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Solidarity with South Sudan. She kept at it, even when a violent conflict broke out between refugee groups, disrupting community life and killing one of her fellow teachers.

Now graduated from the course–one of only two women to do so–Aldabi is teaching in a primary school run by the Lutheran World Federation. Because there is still a drastic shortage of teachers, she teaches English, math, science and social studies.

“We want to educate people, so they become good citizens in the future. Some will become doctors, pilots, engineers, or lawyers. But they all learn from teachers.”

“I like being a teacher with small children, when you tell them something, they listen, unlike adults. Teachers can tell the truth, they can remove illiteracy and teach good communication skills. If they see something wrong they can speak up. Teachers are the light of communities all around the world.”

Alima Kemisa is a JRS teacher trainer who has worked with Aldabi.

“There are very few teachers in the refugee camps, especially women teachers. Because of the people’s culture, too many girls marry first instead of getting an education. Basamat is a good role model, and we’re hoping that some of the girls she teaches will themselves join our teacher training program and then teach in their communities,” she said. “If they see women teachers, the girls will want to be like them. They’ll want to be leaders in their communities.”

When Aldabi started the JRS training, she was one of 26 students. Today the program is training 500 teachers from the four refugee camps and the host community.

Father Tony O’Riordan, SJ, the JRS project director in Maban, said the dedication of teachers like Aldabi provide hope for the community.

“She’s a model for both women and men. It’s amazing that she was able to study and earn her certification in a new language and in an environment of poverty and chaos. It requires heroic discipline,” he said. “JRS is going to leave here one day. What will we leave behind? If we leave behind qualified and motivated teachers, then we will truly have accomplished something. How many kids will she impact in her career, both here and when they return to Sudan? It will be hundreds and thousands.”

Aldabi’s father is pleased his daughter persevered and became a teacher. Alnoor Jakolo Aldabi Moan also has two daughters studying in Ethiopia to become doctors. Unlike some men in his culture, he’s not preoccupied with the bride price of his daughters–traditionally paid in cattle in Sudan.

“I want my daughters to be educated before they get married” he said. “Yet some men are afraid of educated women, because they themselves don’t have much knowledge. An educated woman will tell him the truth, and men don’t always appreciate that.”

The Jesuit Refugee Service, with support from Misean Cara and the Irish Jesuit Missions, provide education and psychosocial support services to both refugees and the host community.