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10 Experts to Watch on Refugee Education

With 50 percent of refugee children unable to attend school, we look at some of the leading thinkers on refugee education in the third installment of our “Experts to Watch” series.

Written by Eline Gordts, Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Rahma Hussein Noor sits in a classroom in Hagadera, one of the five camps of the refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, November 17, 2016. Anna Kerber/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Half of the world’s child refugees do not go to school – some 3.5 million boys and girls with no access to education. Just 1 percent attend university.

Without an education, refugee children face a deck stacked against them. They miss out on the stability of attending school and the qualifications that will help them find work in the future. Refugee children without education opportunities are “more likely to undertake perilous journeys to Europe and other parts of the world, and are also more likely to be married early, exploited, trafficked and forced into work,” says Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children.

Child refugees face multiple barriers to getting education. They often don’t speak the language of the country they settle in. Some have to help provide for their families. Most refugees live in developing countries, where schools are already short on resources.

In the third installment of our “Experts to Watch” series, we introduce 10 experts whose work on refugee education offers invaluable insight into a pressing issue.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson

Sarah Dryden-Peterson is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She focuses on the connections between education and community development, specifically the role that education plays in building peaceful and participatory societies. Dryden-Peterson examines issues such as the role of social institutions in refugee integration, the connections between education and family livelihoods, and transnational institution-building. Her work is mostly situated in conflict and post-conflict settings in Sub-Saharan Africa and with African diaspora communities in the United States and Canada. Her critical review of refugee education formed the basis of the 2012-2016 UNHCR Education Strategy. She’s on Twitter at @drydenpeterson.

Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher is a visiting professor of international relations at New York University and the global strategy director for the Global Business Coalition for Education, a branch of the international children’s charity Theirworld that seeks to harness private sector efforts to get millions of children into education. Fletcher was British ambassador to Lebanon from 2011 to 2015, and has worked tirelessly to increase education opportunities for Syrian refugees. “The battle to educate a generation is not about money alone, but a new, collaborative way of responding. A way of engaging business that is about corporate social results, not just corporate social responsibility,” Fletcher explained in a recent blog for the Huffington Post. Fletcher blogs as the Naked Diplomat, is the author of the book “Naked Diplomacy: Power and Statecraft in the Digital Age” and is on Twitter at @TFletcher.

Leen Al Zaibak

As co-founder and director of Jusoor, an international NGO that helps Syrian youth continue their education through scholarships and mentorship, Leen Al Zaibak has played a crucial role in supporting the successful resettlement of Syrian refugees in and outside of Canada. A Syrian who came to Canada as a child and then returned in 2009 to work with at-risk youth, Al Zaibak currently works as a senior policy advisor for Asia, North Africa and the Middle East in the Office of International Relations and Protocol for the province of Ontario. Previously, she served as a policy advisor to the Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services. She’s also on the board of Lifeline Syria, an initiative to help sponsor and settle 1,000 Syrian refugees in the Greater Toronto Area. She is on Twitter at @Leen_AlZaibak.

Aqeela Asifi

Aqeela Asifi was forced to flee Kabul in 1992 amid the battle for the Afghan capital. Faced with the lack of educational opportunities after arriving in the Kot Chandna refugee camp in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Asifi, a teacher by training, set up her own school in a borrowed tent. Since then, she has been a force of nature, providing an education to hundreds of girls despite minimal resources and strong resistance from the conservative community the school operates in. Today, multiple schools in the camp teach more than 1,500 students, including 900 girls. Asifi won the 2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for her work, and used the prize money to expand the schools into higher-secondary classes. She was also a 2016 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. “When you have mothers who are educated, you will almost certainly have future generations who are educated. So if you educate girls, you educate generations. I wish for the day when people will remember Afghanistan, not for war, but for its standard of education,” she said after receiving the Nansen Refugee Award.

Marc Sommers

Marc Sommers, a visiting researcher at the African Studies Center at Boston University, is an internationally recognized youth expert with extensive research experience in war-affected countries. A former headmaster in Kenya, Sommers focused his PhD on the plight of Burundi refugee youth hiding illegally in urban Tanzania. He’s the author of seven books, including “Fear in Bongoland: Burundi Refugees in Urban Tanzania”, “Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood” and most recently “The Outcast Majority: War Development, and Youth in Africa.” He is on Twitter at @MarcSommers.

Alice P. Albright

Alice P. Albright is the first chief executive officer of the Secretariat of the Global Partnership for Education, a collaboration between governments and civil society to support education in developing countries. “GPE has a funding model that rewards countries that demonstrate concrete results, and it helps countries to set standards, track progress and collect and analyze education data,” Albright explained in a September 2016 blog. The organization is working with UNHCR to increase education for refugees and has introduced innovative education programs, including a project in Chad that in addition to providing funding for school buildings and teachers works on health care improvements as a way to increase school attendance.

Mary Mendenhall

Mary Mendenhall is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the International and Comparative Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her current research and program interests include policies and practices of refugee education across camp, urban and resettlement contexts; teacher support and professional development in crisis settings, including a new project that entails teacher training, peer coaching and mobile mentoring in Kakuma refugee camp; and the relevance and sustainability of education in emergencies interventions. Dr. Mendenhall currently serves as the Chair of the Teachers in Crisis Contexts Working Group, an inter-agency effort to provide continuous, quality professional development to teachers working in displacement contexts. Previously, Dr. Mendenhall led the partnership between the International Rescue Committee and the University of Nairobi to develop the first-ever graduate program in education in emergencies from 2009-2013. She also served as the Network Coordinator for the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) from 2005-2007. More information about Dr. Mendenhall’s work on refugee education at Teachers College can be found here: She’s on Twitter at@MaryMendenhall1.


John Sexton

President emeritus of New York University, John Sexton is the chief executive of a new philanthropic group called the Catalyst Trust for Universal Education. The organization aims to expand access to high-quality education for children and youth around the world through innovative projects and advocacy. Its first initiative, the Platform for Education in Emergencies Response (PEER), launched in September in collaboration with the Institute of International Education. The global, online platform aims to connect refugee students with university scholarships, resources and other higher education opportunities. Initially tailored toward Syrian students, the platform will also provide virtual student advising and other support services.

Jacques Bwira

Fleeing violence in his native Democratic Republic of Congo, Jacques Bwira arrived in the Ugandan capital Kampala in 2000. Without access to education for his child – refugee families at the time were legally not allowed to live in the capital – Bwira, who had been a teacher in the Congo, was resolved to fill that gap. “Seeing my child, and other children, just spending days outside doing nothing was not acceptable to me,” Bwira told Sarah Dryden-Peterson in an interview. He started his own school, the Kampala Urban Refugees Education Center, in a building provided by a supportive priest, teaching refugee children despite limited resources and materials. Fifteen years later, Uganda has overturned the law mandating that refugees must live in camps, and UNHCR has invested in refugee education in the country. Bwira’s school now serves 273 children.

Rebecca Winthrop

Rebecca Winthrop is a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. She spent 15 years working in the field of education for displaced and migrant communities, most recently as the head of education for the International Rescue Committee. Her research focuses on education in the developing world and she works to promote equitable learning issues for young people in developing countries. She co-authored the 2015 book “What Works in Girls Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment,” an overview of research showing that investing in girls’ education creates benefits such as economic growth and reduction of infant and maternal mortality rates. She is on Twitter at @rebeccawinthrop.

More in our “Experts to Watch” series:

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