Messengers of Hope in a Time of Reckoning: Educating Refugees.

I just spent three days in Stockholm with two students at the Sorbonne. They are Aya Hamadeh, a student in computer science, and Mortaza Behboudi, a student in international relations. Both are refugees, the victims of political violence. Mortaza is from Afghanistan and Aya from Syria. Meeting them is to bear witness to the power of the human spirit, to the beauty of human agency and resiliency, to the gift of hope in the face of adversity. Aya and Mortaza are students at the Sorbonne because a number of people understand their responsibility to assist those who have to leave home because the violence is such that they fear that life under such violence is worth less than the suffering and the pain of the journey to hope that refugees travel, so beautifully expressed in the poem Home by Warsan Shire: “No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark”.

Aya and Mortaza are not alone in their journey, they are two of 65,3 million people who have left their homes because of conflict and violence. Of those, at least six million should be in school, but more than half of them are not. For those in school, many receive an education that will not help them heal the wounds of conflict or empower them with the competencies that allow them to live fulfilling lives.

I met Aya and Mortaza at a conference convened by Education International, the international federation of education unions. The conference brought together leaders of education unions, government officials, students who are refugees, teachers who are refugees and who teach refugees, academics and members of international development organizations. The goals of the conference were to take stock of the nature of the challenge, and to identify solutions and make commitments to create conditions to achieve the right to education for refugees.
It was a refugee, a victim of religious prosecution, Jan Amos Comenius, who laid the cornerstone of public education in proposing that education for all was essential to have Peace in the world. On this foundation were built public education systems, largely to advance democratic and peaceful coexistence, across all lines of difference. The global movement to advance education for all accelerated with the inclusion of education as a right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations at the end of world war two, as a moral compass that would guide human solidarity towards global peace and sustainability. A compass that would keep us from the banality of evil.

There is urgency in educating well refugee children and youth. 3.7 million refugees of primary and secondary school age have no school to go to. They are significantly less likely to be in school and to be learning in school than those who have not been displaced.

In six design workshops, the participants in the conference organized by Education International addressed some of the core questions and dilemmas in educating refugees. Those led to specific actionable steps which can now inform the development of specific national strategies and action plans. To illustrate how much knowledge those involved in the practice of refugee education have already, I mention here some of the actions identified by one of the two design workshops, which I had the pleasure to lead.

There is a need to support teachers of refugees in four interrelated ways: addressing teacher shortages, supporting effective teaching in refugee settings, providing effective professional development and support to teachers working with refugees, and providing refugees who are teachers work opportunities. These are tractable problems, and those in the workshops formulated concrete actions that could address them.

Teacher shortages can be addressed with multiple pathways into teaching, including opportunities for career switchers, with appropriate support so those entering the profession are adequately prepared; providing additional compensation to those teachers working with refugee students; providing extra support for students in high levels of need, etc.

The following options can support teaching in refugee centers: a supportive policy framework to accommodate voluntary teachers, contract teachers and casual teachers; develop participatory processes in the camps with the involvement of key stakeholders, including refugee students, parents, teachers and support staff to identify needs and develop a contextually relevant strategy which mobilizes existing assets in the camp; map existing resources in the camp which can support education of refugee children, including space, personnel, opportunities for community partnerships and that recognize and build the agency of refugees themselves and empowers them. It is essential to adopt an appreciative inquiry mindset, loot for things that are positive and good in the setting; develop multidisciplinary approaches to teaching that enable teachers to teach out of field and across the curriculum; review the curriculum so that it is contextually relevant, helps students develop skills that empower them in that setting and build the resiliency for their continued journey until resettlement.

Effective professional development and support to teachers working with refugees should help them gain confidence and ability to teach in a multilingual and culturally diverse classroom, empathy with and high expectations for culturally and racially diverse students, capacity to foster the socio-emotional development of students who have been traumatized by conflict or by the experience of migration, versatility in the notions of inclusion and integration and the capacity to negotiate those goals with other key stakeholders and to translate those into effective curriculum and pedagogical practices.

Providing teachers who are themselves refugees with opportunities can be achieved having them teach in teams with host country teachers, providing them with mentorship and support, hire them as teacher assistants, who work under the supervision of a fully accredited teacher, creating bespoke programs, competency based, that allow multiple pathways to gaining and demonstrating the necessary skills.

At the conference, there were many more actionable steps developed by the participants, and this makes now even more clear that there is a path to educating refugees, that there is much more we could do to support them effectively. This makes our collective moral failure to take action only more evident and the actions and inactions that close doors for refugees, who push them back, only more evil.

Note: This blog is an abstract of a longer article available here.


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Fernando M. Reimers

Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice in International Education and Director of the  Global Education Innovation Initiative and of The International Education Policy Program at Harvard University. He is interested in advancing understanding of the ways schools can empower students to participate civically and economically, and to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. His current research focuses on educational innovation and on the impact of education policy, leadership, and teacher professional development on education that supports the holistic development of children and youth.

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