More than 3.5 million children who are refugees around the world and living under the mandate of the United Nations did not attend school during the past academic year, and the gap in educational opportunity for these young people grows as they age, according to a new report by the United Nations.
That, according to “Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis,” is more than half of the 6.4 million refugees of school age — between 5 and 17 — under the mandate of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The report says that only 23 percent of adolescent refugees are enrolled in secondary school, compared with 84 percent globally — and in low-income countries, just 9 percent of refugees are able to attend secondary school.
This is a personal story by a former refugee, Abraham Leno, from Sierra Leone, who spent 10 years living in refugee camps in Guinea, and did not attend school for part that time. Now an adult, he has worked for 18 years with refugee populations in various countries and is now the country representative for the American Refugee Committee in Congo. He is a 2015 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.
In this piece, the 42-year-old Leno shares what he has experienced, and he highlights an initiative he observed at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan that he thinks is a promising model to bring education to refugee children.
By Abraham Leno
Millions of young people around the world are well into their new school year, but what about the 3.5 million refugee youth who aren’t? Where is education’s promise of a bright future for the Syrian, Somali and Congolese refugee children?
I think about these children because I was like them.
As a result of the rebel war in Sierra Leone that drove my family away from home and into refugee camps, I was not able to attend school for more than four years. Each September between 1991 and 2001, when I was 16 to 26 years old, I lived in desolation and envied the children in our host communities in Guinea who wore shiny school uniforms and were driven to school by their parents.
For me, those years were spent on the street corners, selling fuel in bottles to earn a living and working as a porter to be paid pennies for a day. I craved the opportunity to hold books in my hands, but the only one I could access was a Bible.
Now as an adult, I work with refugees and I am always eagerly looking for good refugee educational programs. Across 18 years, I’ve worked in countries such as Pakistan, Liberia, North and South Sudan, Ethiopia, and currently the Congo, and on the occasion when I have come across an educational program, I have been disappointed by how weak or ineffective it is. Schools in camps often lack the enthusiasm and funding needed to make a difference. Too often educational programs are merely a place to put children to pass the time and they do not gain useful skills.
Visit a refugee school and you will notice the lack of space, supplies, lack of trained teachers and language problems. Recently I was struck by the students having to sit on stones to access classes in the Kakuma camps in Kenya. Funding is always lacking since other issues are prioritized.
It’s no wonder that I’ve felt upset many times witnessing how, in the generation since I lived in a refugee camp and longed for school, there has been little improvement. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised when over this past summer, I had the opportunity to visit a Syrian refugee camp in Za’atari, Jordan, and I found an interesting education model that I think has a chance to succeed.
It’s an informal education program started in April 2014 by Questscope and the American Refugee Committee, and they collaborate on it with a government donor and the refugees themselves; it’s a deliberately designed set of programs that incorporates everyone.
These partners organize “out of school” lessons for 6,000 Syrian refugee children. Courses are taught by qualified by Syrian and Jordanian teachers and mentors. The Jordanian Ministry of Education approved the curriculum.
The program allows students to receive tenth-grade and eleventh-grade certificates or even a high school diploma — and that piece of paper is critical in helping them find jobs and build better futures. Further, many participating children are eligible for the approved national examination and a recognized middle or high school certificate. Such a certificate is important as it allows them to continue with college or other programs. In the event that they are to return to their homes, though unlikely, these documents also allow them to reintegrate into their home educational systems.
In meeting with leaders of these educational programs, I learned that so far, 400 students had graduated, 260 students had transferred to universities and 10 had become teachers and mentors for other home schools.
Alongside these courses, at the Jordanian refugee camps there are also curricula that focus on life skills so that anyone who does not make it through the national examination is not left behind. These students will still graduate with a skill they can use for the rest of their lives. Some of the skills include pottery and painting, cultural dance and drama, poetry and music.
This education model is what I call “development in displacement, a positive way to build the future for and with refugees.
One of my favorite moments during my recent visit was finding a very tiny room with stacks of books arranged on handmade wooden shelves: it was a library! This was something I always dreamed of but never had as a refugee. I was excited to learn that the Syrian kids are learning to become writers and they have reading clubs. Some of the parents follow their kids’ example and attend their reading clubs.
Of course, there is still room for improvement and currently, there are over 5,000 kids who cannot be accommodated due to a lack of space and teachers. Further, the rate of those continuing into formal education is still low and funding is dwindling.
This is why investment in education are crucial. When you make donations to refugee causes, consider earmarking some specifically for educational efforts. In the long run, it’s a sound investment to help children gain skills and certifications that can help them later in life and can reduce the number of people who join terrorist groups. Food, clothes and shelter are all necessary — but so is education!
I saw firsthand that with deliberate, tailored, appropriately funded, collaborative interventions like the one in Jordan, it is possible to ensure that each September is a time of hope for children living in refugee camps just as it is for millions of other children.