Ten-year-old Aliya and eight-year-old Asma arrived at Jalozai refugee camp two weeks ago, after escaping a recent surge in hostilities between government forces and militants near the border with Afghanistan.
But fleeing home has come with an unexpected benefit - for the first time the girls are going to school.
“They were so excited to get pencils and crayons from their teacher,” said their mother, Ameena Bibi, who herself never attended school.
They had fled recent fighting in the Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency, part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), along with nearly 48,000 other recently displaced people - almost half of them children.
Far from home, many having travelled for days by foot, these families are in need of temporary shelter, food, clean water and other essentials - which the government and aid agencies are having difficulty providing.
Of the US$366 million needed for humanitarian assistance in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province this year, only $64 million is currently available, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Still, the camp offers educational services at a level that were simply not available back home.
“A few days ago I enrolled my two daughters,” Bibi told IRIN. “It was easy because so many little girls were going, and camp staff came and helped them enrol. At our home village in the Tirah Valley, there is no school close enough to our home for the girls to attend.”
Literacy and school enrolment rates back home in FATA are the lowest in the country.
“The overall literacy rate in FATA is 19.9 percent, and literacy rate is 34.2 percent for boys and 5.75 percent for girls,” said Deeba Shabnam, education programme officer for UNICEF in Peshawar, the capital of KP Province.
Yet at the camp, she said, overall literacy stands at 42.7 percent - 44.4 percent for boys and 37 percent for girls.
She attributed this improvement to “strong community mobilization, accessible schools, child-friendly learning environments, and school supplies provided to schools and students.”
The recent mass flight from Tirah Valley was just the latest in many waves of displacement from FATA; Pakistan may soon become one of the few countries with more than a million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
IDPs who have returned home in the last few years say the absence of quality education feels more acute after spending time at Jalozai.
“There are just no good schools here. We have moved to Khar [the principal city of Bajaur Agency, FATA] so my children could get a decent education, since schools in our village are very poor,” said Muhammad Saleemullah, a father of three.
But he complained that many teachers had left Bajaur to escape fighting, and that standards were poor. He feared his 12-year-old son would drop out as he found it “useless”.
“He and my two younger children miss the far better school they attended at Jalozai, where we lived for three years, till late 2011,” Saleemullah said.
Owais Khan fled conflict in Bajaur Agency in 2004, and ended up in Jalozai. There, his two daughters, now 13 and 15, started school. Khan returned to his village last year.
“There was no school beyond primary level in our village. My daughters are bright and so keen to learn; I sent them to Peshawar to live with my sister, gain an education and have a better future,” he said.
He added that “most girls who come back from camp schools give up learning”, at least in Bajaur, where he said the few available schools are of very poor quality.
But while parents like Saleemullah and Khan are disappointed by the schools at home, they say living in the camps has given them a stronger appreciation of education.
“I know families from FATA areas who had previously not enrolled [their] children in schools, choosing to do so once they return from Jalozai,” said Muhammad Sadiq, a volunteer teacher at the camp.
“One child I began teaching in 2006 has just done very well in his school-leaving exams in Kurram Agency, and will be going to college in Kohat [a town in KP], so camp education does influence lives, in some cases at least. This boy, Hakim, will have a better future,” Sadiq said.
FATA: bottom of the class
“The prevailing security situation over the last few years has retarded the pace of growth in education sector,” said a 2009 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey carried out by the FATA Secretariat, with support from the government and UN agencies.
“Bearing in mind FATA has a traditional society, with low economic development and limited facilities, education is not a priority,” it said.
Primary level enrolment rates in FATA stand at 46.3 percent - 64.8 percent for boys and 26.8 percent for girls - while national primary enrolment for both genders stands at over 90 percent, according to government data.
Not only are communities often isolated and undeveloped, but some schools have been targeted by fighters in the area.
A September 2012 media report said: “Schools are a popular target for militants, often because they educate girls or because their curriculum is not considered Islamic enough for the Pakistani Taliban, which wields significant influence in the region.”
An estimated one in every 10 schools in FATA has been destroyed since 2008, according to information from the FATA Secretariat. The school that remain are often without teachers, many of whom have fled. And parents fear sending their children to schools that could end up being attacked.
School registration at Jalozai camp was suspended after a bomb attack on 21 March, but with 35 to 40 percent of the camp’s 60,000 residents under the age of 18, education services are considered paramount, and schools resumed after three days.
“It is amazing when children come to school for the first time and begin to discover small marks on paper mean something,” said Sadiq.
There are currently 25 schools running at Jalozai, 13 for boys and 12 for girls, with a total 7,000 children in attendance. The smaller Togh Sarai camp in Hangu District, KP Province - population 5,800 - has two schools run by the local government and UNICEF, with 800 children enrolled.
Sadiq told IRIN that children who came from schools in many FATA areas were often surprised that they were “not beaten or treated unkindly at schools here and loved learning in a pleasant environment.”
“I believe the exposure to better quality education helps parents realize its value.”