Driven from Home but Keeping Hopes High
In the dry dirt of a schoolyard in a refugee settlement in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, a group of children begin tracing squares big enough for one person to stand in. As each takes their place within the borders of one of the boxes, their teacher asks aloud, “What is one thing that you hope for?”
The children call out answers.
“To become a professional soccer player!”
“To improve in maths!”
Once everyone has shared their hope, the teacher, Mr. Yesuf, holds out a bright blue balloon.
“In our game, this will represent hope,” he says, tossing the balloon into the air. As it comes back to earth, the children have to work together to try to keep it afloat—without leaving their square.
The game is called Hope Is in the Air. For Hayat, a Grade 4 student, the balloon represents many things, such as her ambition to finish her education. And her hope for a brighter future.
Hayat is one of more than 4.51 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ethiopia who have fled their home regions to escape conflict and difficult conditions. Upheaval in neighbouring countries, like Sudan, have driven more than 880,000 refugees and asylum seekers across borders, making Ethiopia Africa’s third largest refugee-hosting country.
ADVOCATING FOR THE RIGHT TO LEARN
Hayat and her sister Nejat were forced to leave their home in District Tongo because of conflict. They arrived in their host community traumatized by the experience.
“We had a terrible journey,” says Nejat. The girls travelled with their family on motorbike and on foot for days through harrowing conditions. “Hayat saw things that she wasn’t supposed to. She saw violence and death, and I am sure the bad memories have stayed with her.”
The girls didn’t just leave their home behind – they left their school behind, too. Hayat is an eager student who was looking forward to taking her final exams and graduating into the next grade. But those hopes were dashed when she left home.
“Hayat saw bad things that she wasn’t supposed to. I am sure the bad memories have stayed with her.” – Nejat, Hayat’s sister
When she arrived in the settlement, Hayat was determined to find a way back into the classroom. She went to the local school, where the exams were in progress, and told the principal, Mr. Yesuf, her story.
“She was very insistent when she asked me if she could take the test,” he says. “I was surprised because she was so determined. She even asked to borrow my pen.”
Mr. Yesuf and teachers at the school had received training from Right To Play in how to use play-based learning methods, including psychosocial support games, to address the needs of internally displaced children and to support the local host community to integrate young newcomers and provide them with the support they need to continue their social, emotional, and academic development. The training was delivered as part of the Building Back Better program, which is funded by the LEGO Foundation, that aims to improve children’s education and psychosocial well-being in the aftermath of crisis. In Ethiopia, Building Back Better is implemented in Benishangul-Gumuz, which hosts more than 500,000 IDPs and over 70,000 refugees of conflict from neighbouring Sudan and South Sudan.
Mr. Yesuf let Hayat sit for the test and supported her to return to school full-time. Through the program, Hayat was able to access school supplies and menstrual health products. The games and play-based lessons helped her catch up on learning, connect with her peers, and start to process some of the trauma she experienced.
“Now she has become our regular student,” says Mr. Yesuf.
TRAINING TEACHERS IN THE P.O.W.E.R. OF PLAY
Many of the games that Hayat and her fellow students play are from the Play Opportunities for Wellness and Education Resource (P.O.W.E.R), a collection of 100 open-source play-based activities that promote psychosocial well-being and holistic development. The games have been translated and are being used by 202 trained teachers to support 11,574 students.
"We can practically see the children overcoming the trauma they had,” says Project Officer Abdulfata Musa. “We also try to make parents aware of how playing can help their children overcome the stress they experience.”
P.O.W.E.R. also contains activities to help improve creativity, concentration, literacy, and numeracy. These are essential tools for teachers because research shows that primary school students’ academic achievement in Ethiopia lags behind pre-pandemic levels.
KEEPING HOPE AND DREAMS AFLOAT
In Hope Is in the Air, every time the balloon hits the ground, the game begins again, and participants can set new challenges for themselves. For example, they might set a goal for how many consecutive hits to achieve before the balloon drops or re-arrange their squares to widen the distance between players. That the children are prepared to risk a more challenging round means they have hope that they can accomplish their goals—important confidence to have in life.
At the end of play, Mr. Yesuf leads a discussion of the game’s key learning.
“How did you feel when you could keep the balloon in the air?” he asks. “What are some things you can do in your daily life to feel hopeful?”
For Hayat, attending school every day is an act of hope. Her favourite game is called I Like Math. A bit like Rock, Paper, Scissors, it involves students holding out different numbers of fingers and working together to add up the total digits in their heads.
“Learning here is fun,” she says of her new school. “I am happy when we play games; it relaxes me and helps me concentrate on my studies.”
Hayat dreams of becoming a doctor one day—someone who can help others, just as her teachers and adopted IDP community have helped her to cope with her trauma, find belonging, and keep hope in the air.
P.O.W.E.R has been adapted for use in Ethiopia as part of Building Back Better, an initiative that sought to pilot a series of new, play-based interventions in Ethiopia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda from 2022-2023. It was made possible with the support of the LEGO Foundation.