Aleze looked down the hill near the food distribution center as he ran the red dirt through his hands, again and again. It was wet and soft, and left a red residue on his hands as he let it fall slowly onto the stained ground. His father’s French faded to the background and the screeching sound of gunshots filled his mind. His head buzzed with the chaos: people running, the screaming, his own heavy breathing as the thorns of the bush pierced his back while he lay low to the ground, trying not to be seen. The burning smell was what he remembered most vividly, as the camp was set on fire just nights before. He dropped the dirt to the ground and broke out of his daze, as one of his classmates snapped a stick to write his assignment on the ground in the spot where his cousin used to sit next to him. The “school” that they sat in consisted of a circle of students taught by some parents who used to be teachers, who gave lessons from memory a few hours a day gathered in the center of the camp.
When Aleze first told me his story of surviving the Gatumba Massacre in Burundi and his three years in a refugee camp as we drove from Greenville to Charleston, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But Aleze’s experience in the Gatumba camp is not unique — there are currently 27 million children out of school due to conflict in 24 affected countries and the numbers are growing. This means that approximately 28,300 people are forced to flee their home every day because of violence and that Aleze’s former reality is the day-to-day norm for the 2.6 million refugees who live in camps today.