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The Future of Refugee Education: A Roundup

We collect the highlights of our special focus on refugee education, including a series of in-depth reports on refugee integration into schools, and coverage of ideas and innovations expanding refugees’ access to education.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
Ilaf Okla, 14, from Hama, in her classroom in Lebanon, studies alongside her peers. Preethi Nallu/Theirworld

Over the past month, Refugees Deeply took an in-depth look at the state of refugee education and the ideas that could shape the future of the field.

The scale of the problem facing refugee educators is clear from the statistics. More than half of the world’s refugee children do not go to school – some 3.7 million children, including over half a million Syrian children. Refugees’ chance of getting an education drop even further as they grow up: only 22 percent of refugees go to secondary school, and just one percent attend university.

There are many obstacles standing between these children and a classroom. Some are legal and political – around 20 percent of refugee-hosting countries restrict refugee children’s access to national schools. Others are financial – education for refugees is chronically underfunded, hovering around 2 percent of humanitarian aid in recent years.

Meanwhile, refugee children face a multitude of other challenges inherent to life in exile – a new language, family pressure to work or get married young, bullying and discrimination, and paralyzing uncertainty about the future.

There has been some progress. Following the Syrian crisis, several countries committed to integrate refugee children into their national school systems, although the pace has often been glacial, and integration has been riddled with problems.

In a joint series with Women & Girls Hub, our reporters took a look at how efforts to integrate refugee children into school systems are playing out in four different countries.

Abby Sewell reported from Lebanon on the hopes and disappointments of the nine al-Abdullah siblings in northern Lebanon who are grappling with chaotic schools, a new language and the pressure to go out and get construction jobs. With the highest per capita refugee population in the world, Lebanon opened up a “second shift” of classes in the afternoons for refugees in 2013. But the push did not reach everyone, and many children end up working informally to support their families due to the country’s restrictive employment and residency rules for refugees.

For most refugees, like the al-Abdallah family, any trip outside the camp means risking arrest at a checkpoint. Children are better able to get around undetected. When the family arrived in Lebanon, four of Ahmad’s older brothers went to work. They never returned to school … Before the war, Mohammed had big ambitions. Maybe he would become a doctor, or an engineer or a teacher; any of it seemed possible. Now his options have narrowed. “Work, sleep. Work, sleep,” he wrote on Facebook. “I miss myself.” If the family stays in Lebanon, the younger children will probably also drop out of school early. “After two years, I will have to go to work, too,” Abdel Rezaq, the 12-year-old aspiring doctor, said matter-of-factly.

Elspeth Dehnert reported from Jordan on how the country’s commitment to provide education to all Syrian children is playing out on the ground. Jordan has also opened a second shift in many of its public schools, but some Syrian families can’t afford the commute to school and have expressed concerns about the quality of education on offer. She reports on the story of Judy, a 10-year-old Syrian refugee and aspiring fashion designer who has been to four schools in the past four years, and her mother Zainab, a former English teacher.

Judy was accepted into the nearer public school, but Zainab made the tough decision to pull her out after a year due to concerns over her daughter’s education. “I didn’t like the educational quality or the system,” she says … Zainab was worried about other things, too, mainly the overcrowded classrooms, what she perceives as a lack of organization, and the men and teenage boys she saw lurking outside the schools. “I was afraid, and I didn’t like it,” she says. Judy, on the other hand, says she was most bothered by the punishment she saw inflicted on other students: “The teachers used to hit kids with a stick,” she recalls.

Judy with her sisters Jana and Roza at home in Jordan. (Elspeth Dehnert)

Didem Tali reported from Turkey on sisters Sabah and Mayas, who had a tough start in Istanbul after fleeing Aleppo, but has since mastered Turkish and are now thriving at school. But many Syrian refugee children struggle in the Turkish-language education system. Over 40 percent of refugees in Turkey don’t make it to school due to enrollment barriers and financial pressure to work.

Sabah says one of her old schoolmates from Aleppo is now struggling in Turkey. They used to be in the same class, but the girl is now two grades below Sabah. “I was very surprised when I saw Hatice at my new school,” she says. “I didn’t know [her family] had come to Istanbul as well. Hatice was a successful girl back in Aleppo. But she and her family – they don’t speak very good Turkish. Her grades aren’t very good.”

Yiannis Baboulias reported from Greece on the efforts of a migrant women’s network to give refugee girls access to education. Greece last year pledged to help all refugee and migrant children in the country attend schools, but the E.U.-funded program has been slow and has reached just a sliver of refugee children in the country.

The effort to integrate refugee children has been mired in delays. In Malakasa camp north of Athens, children were told they’d be in school by December last year, but only started in March – a problem faced across Greece, mostly due to hold-ups with staffing classes. There have also been sporadic hostile reactions by locals across the country against integrating refugees into school.

Refugee women and teenagers participate in a sculpting workshop at the Melissa center for migrant women in Athens on March 10, 2017. (AFP/LOUISA GOULIAMAKI)

Taking a look ahead, some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the field of refugee education shared their ideas about the challenges that lie ahead, and some possible to solutions to expand access to refugee education.

Tom Fletcher, adviser to the Global Business Coalition for Education, outlined the case for a business-led approach to close the gap in funding for refugee education.

Ingenious humans have already created some of the most extraordinary technology to allow people to find a date, contact people on the other side of the world and access content. What if we took all that technology and combined it with all that compassion? What if we were ready next time? And what if business led the way? Not with finance, but with practical help – supporting the education effort in the best ways it can.

Paul Frisoli, the International Rescue Committee’s education adviser for the Middle East, explains how education can – literally – be life saving in emergencies like the battle for Mosul.

In the case of Mosul, education can also go a step further and provide the school personnel, teachers, students and even parents with crucial life-saving information related to mine awareness. This is something that is currently taking place at the grassroots level in some select newly retaken locations. Schools can therefore become the nexus of safety awareness for an entire community.

Giulia McPherson of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA examines the growing challenge of delivering education to refugees who spend longer periods in exile, looking in depth at the case of Darfuri refugees in Chad.

Donors and humanitarian organizations must work more closely to develop and fund programs that focus on integration, in which both refugees and the population of the country hosting them will benefit. As with all protracted crises where a displaced population has lived among, or close to, a host population for many years, integration and collaboration between the humanitarian and development sectors is critical.

Ibtissam, a preschool teacher in Iridimi refugee camp, eastern Chad. (Giulia McPherson, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson says this context requires a fundamental rethink of the purpose of refugee education – a shift from preparing students for their return home to equipping children to cope with “unknowable futures.”

Children look to adults to help them understand what the parameters of that future might be and how they might prepare for it. In refugee contexts, the adults have little more insight than the children into what the future will hold. Indeed, for refugees, the future is “unknowable.” How can education help refugee children make their future in the context of such “radical uncertainty”?

Polly Akhurst and Mia Eskelund, founders of Sky School, a new education initiative for refugee youth, drill down on the neglect of secondary students in efforts to support refugee education, and make their case for global high school for refugees.

Most private and not-for-profit education initiatives support informal learning at secondary level. They offer academic classes, as well as extracurricular activities, but students do not receive a qualification at the end. Most have small budgets, while the need is large.

Sarah Brown, president of children’s charity Theirworld, called on donors at last week’s Syria aid conference not to break their promise to educate 1 million Syrian children this year, urging greater transparency and accountability in education funding.

There are currently no figures for the amount committed to Syrian refugee education for 2017, how this money will be spent or when and how it will be delivered. This makes it impossible for national governments and partners on the ground to plan effectively. It also leads to a lack of coherent strategy to ensure that funding is in place for the children to be admitted to schools by the end of this academic year.

Afghan refugees wait for official procedures as they arrived at Voluntary Repatriation Center in Chamkani, Peshawar, Pakistan, on October 20, 2016. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency)

We heard from educators of refugees firsthand about their experiences. Syrian academic Oula Abu-Amsha wrote about struggling to re-establish her professional career in Europe, while finding solace helping refugees in Jordan access higher education through the Jamiya Project.

I will never forget the email response I received from one prospective student. “Doctor! I am a former student of yours. I took courses with you back in 2012.” We both fled after that final year at Damascus University, and now we are virtually together again. This young man was supposed to finish his engineering degree last year, but the Syrian war decided otherwise.

We also spoke to Aqeela Asifi, a refugee and prize-winning educator of Afghan girls in Pakistan, about how mass returns from the country will impact girls’ education and thus the future of Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the influx of returnees will have a negative impact and create a burden for an already struggling country in all sectors. But the educated returnees will definitely break the taboo and promote education in every phase of their lives, including their children. This is a gift they carry with them [to Afghanistan] for their children.

We heard the stories of refugee students in Lebanon, some of them who used to work in the streets, about the importance they place on education.

Being a refugee is just one stage of life, Mohammed said. “One can overcome it.” His plan is to study hard and work on learning languages. “They open up new worlds,” he says. While he is learning French and English at school, Arabic will always sound “the sweetest,” he says.

Mohammad loves learning languages. (Preethi Nallu/Theirworld)

We also looked at some innovative education projects working with refugees in camps and cities around the world. In Kenya, refugee students in the sprawling, remote Kakuma camp are studying for their accountancy qualifications at the country’s best business school via real-time conferencing, a pilot project of iLab Africa.

The problem is getting the students to class. For example, if it has rained in Kakuma and there are floods and the students cannot access the computer labs, they cannot come to class. Or perhaps it’s the time for distribution of food relief and they’re not able to come to class. Or maybe it’s a motivation issue – they’re feeling a bit down based on what’s happening in their lives and they don’t want to come to class. That’s why the virtual classes are good because they actually interact with a lecturer in real-time.

In Germany, SchlaU-Schule, a school for refugees and migrants, has been working for two decades to address the specific needs of unaccompanied refugee children in getting an education.

It’s important to give refugees the opportunity to find a way back to themselves, to restore and strengthen their identity. You need to tell them: “You are a valuable person, no matter what other people have said.” It’s all about a trusting relationship.

In the coming months, we will continue our coverage of refugee education with the latest research, new ideas and potentially game-changing initiatives for refugees trying to pursue an education and a future. Please send us your story pitches, ideas and research via email, Twitter or Facebook.

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