Refugees reclaim a human right with technology

New tool securely stores and shares the educational documents needed to rebuild lives

By Julia Ann Easley and Joe Proudman, UC Davis

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — Arabic bounces off the walls of a small room in a nondescript building in Lebanon’s notorious Bekaa Valley. About a dozen Syrian refugees carefully take photos of their diplomas and training certificates. One young man steadies a document on the brace around his left leg—a reminder of the civil war that has driven millions from their country, many here to Lebanon.

Jawad Kaysaneya was in his first year of college, studying to be a civil engineer like his father, when he fled eastern Ghouta shortly after the war started.

War derailed his dreams, and continues to do so in Lebanon, where he’s lived since 2012.

A refugee camp sits among agriculture fields in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. While most Syrian refugees live in apartments and in urban settings, some live in temporary camps, working in the agriculture fields. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)
A refugee camp sits among agriculture fields in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. While most Syrian refugees live in apartments and in urban settings, some live in temporary camps, working in the agriculture fields. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)

“In the whole world, if you are Syrian, you have nothing. You have no rights. You have no life,” Kaysaneya said, in English. “I lived a life, and it’s not the one I was dreaming about.”

But dreams have a way of persisting, especially with a little help. The web-based platform where these young Syrian adults are uploading their documents aims to remove obstacles to their aspirations.

The Article 26 Backpack is a new humanitarian tool that displaced people are using to securely store and share documents, such as transcripts and resumes, with universities, scholarship agencies and employers. Nearly 600 people have created virtual backpacks since the project launched in Lebanon this spring.

Students register for the Article 26 Backpack in Tripoli, Lebanon. The registration event in northern Lebanon was the largest one to date with about 100 young people creating profiles. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)
Students register for the Article 26 Backpack in Tripoli, Lebanon. The registration event in northern Lebanon was the largest one to date with about 100 young people creating profiles. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)

Many refugees have fled without the papers so vital to getting an education or work. Their transcripts are incomplete, their diplomas are missing, or their professional certifications are not recognized. It is not only difficult—but also costly and even dangerous—to seek documents from Syrian universities and state agencies. Any physical documents refugees do have risk being lost, stolen or destroyed in the uncertain environments in which they live.

“For refugees and other at-risk people, they will never have to worry again that their documents might be lost,” said Keith David Watenpaugh, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Article 26 Backpack project.

Keith David Watenpaugh, right, a professor and director of the UC Davis Human Rights program, and Eslam Abo Alhawa, center, help Ali Almarzouki register for the Article 26 Backpack in the Bekaa Valley. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)
Keith David Watenpaugh, right, a professor and director of the UC Davis Human Rights program, and Eslam Abo Alhawa, center, help Ali Almarzouki register for the Article 26 Backpack in the Bekaa Valley. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)

“The important thing about the Article 26 Backpack is that we’re able to edit it whenever we want, wherever we are, as well we can add things, delete things or we can even delete our account if we don’t want to use it anymore,” said Eslam Abo Alhawa, a computer science student at the American University of Beirut, or AUB, who helps users set up backpacks. “We can have our academic documents at any time, and we can use them whenever we want.”

The Article 26 Backpack takes its name from that icon of student life plus the article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that established—70 years ago next month—the right to education. Supported by a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, the concept grew out of Watenpaugh’s efforts to address the suffering caused by attacks on students and scholars, institutions of higher learning and academic freedom.

The head of the burgeoning human rights program at UC Davis, he fears a generation is being lost to the ongoing civil war in Syria that has displaced or made refugees of more than 12 million people.

“Unless these young people have access to continuing education,” Watenpaugh said, “they will not have that kind of capital that they can take with them back to Syria to help rebuild it or move to new societies where they can become leaders.” Education, as the path to integrating them back into society, is, he said, “so important to confront ideologies of hate and xenophobia that seem to be on the rise not only in Europe but also in the Western Hemisphere.”

Keith David Watenpaugh shares his Backpack with Hoda al-Rifai, director of the Ruwad al-Tanmeya Center in Tripoli, Lebanon. When al-Rifai first read about the Backpack, she said, “I just started to dream.” (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)
Keith David Watenpaugh shares his Backpack with Hoda al-Rifai, director of the Ruwad al-Tanmeya Center in Tripoli, Lebanon. When al-Rifai first read about the Backpack, she said, “I just started to dream.” (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)

However, only about 1 percent of refugees have access to higher education, tremendously fewer than the 36 percent of global youth with access, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Like Kaysaneya, many are frustrated in their attempts to pursue education and put what education they do have to work.

“If I’m telling you something, you’re not going to believe me if I don’t have the evidence, and those documents are the evidence,” said Doha Albared, who also trains refugees to use the Backpack and is studying computer science at AUB. “They’re super, super important.”

Watenpaugh is working with the Beirut-based university to reach out to refugees at camps and community centers as well as through social media.

The guides, like Abo Alhawa and Albared, provide the human relationship important for working with people disconnected from their homeland, family and much of the world. “The communication part is very important—to talk with others, to get engaged with them and make them feel comfortable,” Abo Alhawa said.

Ali Almarzouki, right, registers for the Article 26 Backpack in the Bekaa Valley with help from Eslam Abo Alhawa and friend Mohammad Alnamous. Abo Alhawa, a student at the American University of Beirut, is trained to help others create their virtual Backpacks. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)
Ali Almarzouki, right, registers for the Article 26 Backpack in the Bekaa Valley with help from Eslam Abo Alhawa and friend Mohammad Alnamous. Abo Alhawa, a student at the American University of Beirut, is trained to help others create their virtual Backpacks. (Photo credit: Joe Proudman, UC Davis)

She is inspired by the personal stories refugees share in brief videos that give life to the documents in their Backpacks. “They work hard to get opportunities to build themselves, to be skilled, and their goal is to go back and build Syria again,” Abo Alhawa added.

Watenpaugh said he wants to take the Backpack to other areas of the Middle East most affected by the war in Syria. In the future, he sees its use for people affected by natural disasters, climate refugees and students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status in the United States.

Meanwhile, he plans to integrate academic counseling and job placement assistance into the Backpack. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers is already developing a team to assess how the credentials that refugees share through the Backpack could be accepted by universities around the world.

At the Bekka Valley site, Watenpaugh finds Kaysaneya fresh with disappointment that he didn’t get a scholarship. But now that he’s nearly done setting up his Backpack profile, he plans on using it to apply for future opportunities.

“Look, now you never have to worry about where your documents are,” Watenpaugh tells Kaysaneya. “That’s one thing off your shoulders. You’ve had a lot to worry about.”

“I wish that it will change my life, actually,” Kaysaneya said of the Backpack. “I believe in that.”

To learn how curiosity drives UC Davis, visit www.ucdavis.edu/curiosity


Julia Ann Easley reported from Davis, California.

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