‘They Want to Be Here’

How a school in Djibouti City has become a haven for the hard up

By / November 2015

Almost fifty children ages four to twelve are crammed into a single classroom in Djibouti City. The windows are open and a couple of ceiling fans swirl the steamy air and cause papers to crinkle and fall to the bare cement floor. A young woman who recently graduated from the University of Djibouti stands in front of a blackboard. She has written the days of the week and the months of the year in chalk, in French, and the students are copying down the words.

Some of the kids hunch over their notebooks with their pens gripped in their fists. Others lean back, done with the assignment already while the youngest nibble on their pens and glance around the room, not sure what, exactly, they are supposed to be doing. One little girl, tired of struggling to copy down the words, tears open a bag of potato chips. The chips fall to the floor and she carefully picks up each and every crumb. I’m surprised. This is a country where plastic bags and candy wrappers fly out car windows, where no one thinks twice about dropping a soda can or an egg carton on the side of the road. But this classroom is spotless. It is also nearly silent.

This is the quietest group of fifty children I have ever seen. Even the boys at the table in the far right back corner are patiently and silently waiting for the younger kids to finish. They are the oldest boys in the room, sitting where the oldest boys in every classroom around the world sit, far from the teacher and close to the windows. They spin their pens between their fingers but they don’t tease the slower students and they don’t talk loudly or disrupt the classroom. Some of the older girls move between tables and help the younger kids. When everyone is finished, the teacher moves on to another subject.

The students eagerly wait for snack time and after snack time and a few more lessons, lunch. For some, lunch might be the only meal they eat that day, unless the school has enough funds to provide breakfast in the morning.

Some of them are homeless or live in cardboard and metal shacks along the defunct railroad tracks. Some of them live in solid houses but come from families who can’t afford the school supplies required to send their children to free government schools. Some don’t have the paperwork necessary to gain access to those schools. They might be refugees or immigrants. They might not have been born in a hospital and therefore don’t have evidence of being citizens of any country. All of them are welcome here. There is a waiting list of over two hundred more who want to come.

With only one teacher, one classroom, and a severely limited budget, the primary school of the Association de Développement et Protection de l’Enfant a Besoin (the Association for the Development and Protection of Children in Need) is already pushing its financial and capacity limits with fifty students. There are other rooms in the house that doubles as the school but they are being used for other purposes.

One is the office, furnished with a wobbly black metal table and two chairs and half of a couch. Another room is the kitchen, furnished with a single gas burner and nothing else. The hired cook brings fresh food each morning: tomatoes, onions, garlic, spaghetti noodles or rice, sometimes beef or goat. She cooks while squatting on the floor and uses two pots. The kids eat through five kilos of pasta or rice every day. The entryway is used for gathering shoes. All the children leave their plastic sandals at the front door when they come in. The entryway doubles as the lunchroom when, after class, the kids hover around large platters and serve themselves, family-style, with their right hands. The other room that could be used as a classroom is designated for special needs children and their parents.

This group comes three mornings a week, or whenever the kids need someplace to go to get out of their homes. Twice a month a medical professional, sometimes a doctor, sometimes a nurse, comes to check on the kids and to advise their parents on their care.

One boy was born with Epidermolysis Bulls. Colloquially, he is known as a ‘butterfly child’ because of the way his skin flakes and falls off. From birth he has looked like a child suffering from third degree burns. Most butterfly children die in the first eighteen months of life, there is no treatment. But this boy, Ayanleh, is six years old. He comes to the school simply to have a place where he can wander and be welcomed without being stared at. He doesn’t participate in lessons.

Saada, the director of the school, earned a degree in social work in Toronto and then returned to her home country of Djibouti to put her degree into practice. She left her husband and children in Canada and lives with her mother in the rooms above the school. Besides class, medical care, and lunch, Saada has also instituted a sports day one afternoon per week and afternoon tutoring sessions for kids who need, or want extra, attention.

Though she would like to focus more on improving the quality of education, for now much of Saada’s time is spent fundraising for the school. She often welcomes bankers, television producers, or local journalists to come and meet the kids or to sit in on a few minutes of class. Out of the thirty banks where she issued invitations to come see the school, only one sent a representative. She did recently win a World Food Program grant for help with meals but still, she says, securing the funds to keep the school going is both never-ending and discouraging.

“But look at these kids,” she said. “They are like angels, they are innocent and just want to learn.”

Angelic isn’t a word I would normally use to describe children in this neighborhood, which happens to also be my own neighborhood. School kids have tried to grab the handlebars of my daughter’s bike when she rides down the block to tennis. They shout at her to give them her bike. Others have ripped candy right off of the birthday gifts we carried to the neighbor’s house. Some kids swing their fists in my face or attempt to trip me and my kids when we walk outside. Some kids throw stones or shout obscenities, not realizing that I understand Somali and know that they are calling me a prostitute or making fun of the way I walk.

The kids in this neighborhood prompted me to write articles about sexual harassment, about my own rage, about losing my temper in public, about some of my worst experiences as a foreigner.

But then I see these kids at Saada’s school. They are also local kids, they are the same age, they are from the same neighborhood. And they are quiet, attentive, eager to learn, obedient, respectful. They want to be here, as does Saada, her mother, Zamzam the young teacher, the woman cooking in the windowless kitchen, the mothers and their handicapped children, the medical professionals.

I don’t think any of the kids on the street or in this school are angels. But there is something unique about this school. It was obvious from the moment I stepped through the front gate.

With help from another aid organization and Feed My Starving Children, I delivered twenty boxes of food assistance last month, a total of over four hundred meals. I also brought, with help from Lutheran World Relief, school kits. One for each student now and one for each student after the New Year. The kits contain notebooks, scissors, colored pencils, erasers, glue, rulers.

It wasn’t a lot. It wasn’t enough. Nothing ever is when you’re dealing with the needs of hungry and homeless children. Saada knows this sense of inadequacy well, even as she fights against it to turn her little school into a safe haven.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a contributing editor for EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti City. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child, Running Times, the Big Roundtable, the Huffington Post, and many other publications.