Teaching refugees in Ethiopia: when the teacher is also a refugee

04 October 2019


A primary school student draws her future dream to become a teacher in Ethiopia.

At around mid-day at a lower-primary school in the Kule refugee camp in the Ethiopian district of Gambella, a stream of students line up for a school assembly. They have just arrived for the second shift. Faced with severe overcrowding, this school, like many others across the country, has no other choice than to run double shifts.

“There are about 164 students per class and managing them is difficult,” said a head teacher. During hot, dry months when the temperature pushes above 45 degrees, the classroom dynamics become even more challenging. “But we manage it because we have no other option.”

Many of the students at this primary school are over the traditional age. One boy, 18, has returned to school and is now in the fourth grade. He lives very far from the school and sometimes arrives late. However, when this happens, the teachers tell him to go back home. As a result, he says he misses up to one quarter of the things he was supposed to learn during a week.

Teaching in the morning…

In this school, all of the teachers, including the head teacher and the deputy, are also refugees, many of whom had fled South Sudan’s conflict, despite the government’s efforts to staff all schools with qualified Ethiopian teachers. While the teachers who have South Sudanese teaching qualifications are technically equipped to teach, they are unfamiliar with the Ethiopian curriculum, which is followed in all refugee schools. They also have to assist other refugee teachers who have not yet completed grade 12 and require a lot of support in both subject matter and teaching style.

Students in Ethiopia draw their future

As part of our research on teachers of refugees, we asked primary students to draw how they see their future in five or ten years.  From doctor, teacher, to a United Nations car driver, see what these students aspire to become by following #NoDreamsDisplaced on Twitter.


Adding to the challenge is the low status of teaching, common to Gambella and Ethiopia as a whole. In general, entry requirements are among the lowest of all professions. “One can fail the national exam”, a qualifier for university entrance, “and still become a primary teacher,” said one regional official. Despite the worryingly low status of the profession, many teachers from refugee schools and host community schools alike expressed a passion for teaching, and a desire to help their communities. One teacher from the Bambasi refugee school in another region, Benishangul-Gumuz, said, “I am a teacher so I have to teach. I chose teaching. For anyone wanting the little knowledge I have, I want to help them.”

The Bambasi school faces many of the same challenges of the school in Kule. The teacher-pupil ratio is more than a hundred to one. As a result, teachers often do not know who their students are, and class discussions are nearly impossible with the school roster taking up nearly a third of the class time. There is also no age limit for who can attend school. As a result, Bambasi’s head teacher said some of the students are between 15 and 30 years old. While this is way above the standard primary school age, it shows a steadfast drive to learn and to continue one’s education.

… studying in the afternoon

In fact, some teachers are themselves primary students. At a school with two shifts, one can sometimes see a refugee teacher teaching lower primary classes in the morning and then attending upper primary classes – as students – in the afternoon. Other refugee teachers are actively pursuing their teaching qualification. With support from Education Cannot Wait (ECW), hundreds of refugee teachers from Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz have received scholarships to attend summer courses at the regions Colleges of Teacher Education (CTEs) and are expected to graduate with an official Ethiopian teaching certificate or diploma in the coming years. Unfortunately, initiatives such as this are not open to all refugee teachers, as they are in part merit-based and are dependent on availability of funds.

This only hints at some of the many complex challenges teachers face in refugee contexts, while also illustrating their significant commitment to education for themselves and their communities, no matter where they are.

Did you know? Ethiopia is home to Africa’s second-largest refugee population

Ethiopia has a long history of hosting refugees from across the region. The country has an open door policy for refugees, which includes protection for asylum seekers. This open door policy, along with the country’s relative stability amidst rising conflict and instability in the region, has led to a surge in the number or refugees over the past decade, from under 100,000 in 2008 to almost a million in 2018 (World Bank). While the current population of refugees represents only one percent of the total Ethiopian population, the refugee population is concentrated in different regions, such as the Gambella region, where refugees make up over 50 percent of the regional population.


These observations were made during recent missions to Ethiopia, one of the countries in our research with Education Development Trust on teacher management in refugee contexts. The multi-country research study aims to provide governments with evidence-informed guidance on how to nurture and sustain a thriving body of great teachers who can facilitate quality education for all.