BANI HASSAN, Yemen – Ali Hassan Kudaish is no ordinary principal. The school he runs, Al-Somood – which means “resilience” – comprises nine tents measuring 140 cubic feet (4 cubic meters) each. This makeshift operation is located inside Yemen’s biggest camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), Bani Hassan, in the northern province of Hajjah. Over 50,000 displaced people live here, more than one-third of them children.
In Yemen, nearly 2 million of the country’s 7.3 million school-aged children have no access to education, a report released in March by Save the Children found. This includes 513,000 children displaced by war.
The continued fighting – which has already devastated Yemen, pushing the most impoverished Arab country to the brink of famine – may rob a generation of children of their education. Up to 4.5 million Yemeni children may not finish this school year.
Since it opened in January 2016 with support from UNICEF, the Al-Somood school, run by the local educational authorities, has welcomed more than 1,300 displaced children. Kudaish, who also runs a public high school in a nearby village, says keeping Al-Somood open has been an uphill battle: “Imagine running a school with no textbooks, nor any certificates for the children,” he says.
Kudaish says such difficulties have already led a large number of children to drop out, particularly girls. Women & Girls sat down with the principal to learn more.
Women & Girls: How many children are in your school this year?
Ali Hassan Kudaish: The school has enrolled 482 schoolchildren, nearly half of them girls. Although it has been just one year since the school was launched, 871 schoolchildren [of the 1,300 who initially enrolled] have already dropped out – the majority of them girls.
Women & Girls: Why are most of the dropouts girls?
Kudaish: One of the main reasons is that we do not have female teachers. Girls and boys are taught in separate classrooms here, and the girls would be more comfortable with women teachers schooling them. The school has 22 teachers, all of them men. Four are from the IDP camp, while the rest are from communities in the region.
Women & Girls: Have you considered hiring female teachers?
Kudaish: Not at this time. The 22 male teachers have still not been paid their modest stipends of 15,000 Yemeni riyals (roughly $60), and they were only given contracts from UNICEF in January this year, one year after the school was launched. UNICEF supports the school in coordination with the Provincial Education Bureau in Hajjah City. The organization deals directly with the Hajjah education bureau through local staffers, but no actions have been taken yet regarding the teachers’ stipends.
Women & Girls: Are there any other reasons for dropping out of school?
Kudaish: Another big reason is the heavy amount of household chores at the camp, which girls commonly have to help their mothers with, especially those mothers who are the heads of their households.
Women & Girls: How did you find the girls’ performance in school?
Kudaish: Generally, the girls at the camp are keen to join the school and learn – they account for half of the schoolchildren now, despite the high dropout rate. Over the past school year, most of the girls have excelled at their study and earned high marks, especially in the first three grades. I am sure they can keep it up – if only this school’s situation could improve!
Women & Girls: Do families at the camp encourage their girls to attend the school?
Kudaish: In spite of the difficult situation facing the displaced families here, most of the parents or heads of the households encourage their children to join the school. It is also our job to keep encouraging the schoolchildren and keep them focused on their futures. I am responsible for these kids, and I have to continue my mission.
Women & Girls: What are the current challenges facing the school?
Kudaish: The school has only nine tents with 105 chairs. Three tents have no chairs at all; dozens of students sit on the ground. These tents are not practical. They are small, and it’s sweltering inside. Last year a number of tents were damaged by the rains, but we fixed them.
The principal’s office is a small, wooden shack with no chairs, desks or anything else; I’ve had to turn it into a classroom.
Since the beginning, the school has only been given five packs of markers. The teachers and I have been chipping in every month to buy [more]. Each month we use at least 10 packs. And pupils have no textbooks to read and study at home.
Despite my countless attempts, I have no response from the local authorities in Hajjah. It’s really a sad thing to see that these kids’ chance of getting an education is going down.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This story originally appeared on Women & Girls.