Today there are approximately 21.3 million refugees worldwide, over half of whom are under the age of 18. In parallel, the global average time a person spends in refugee camps is now 20 years. Regrettably, education in this context remains a second order priority, which means that refugee children are born and raised in suboptimal conditions for intellectual and physical development.
The latest report by the UNHCR paints a sobering picture. Of the 6 million school-aged children directly under its mandate, just 50 per cent have access to primary education. This gap grows larger with age; only 22 per cent of refugee youth have access to secondary school and just one per cent attend university.
Entire generations are therefore at risk of not receiving adequate access to quality education, a trend that will have devastating effects on society and that will continue to trap the most vulnerable in cycles of exploitation and inequity. With an inert political sector and an overwhelmed humanitarian sector, WISE and its partners convened a working group to explore the role that the education sector can play to help narrow this chasm.
WISE partnered with the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA), American Community School of Athens (ACS) and the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) to examine citywide approaches to educational opportunities for refugee children and young people.
In his welcome address, CEO of WISE Stavros Yiannouka reminded the gathering of “our moral obligation as actors in education to play our part in alleviating the symptoms of displacement”.
The forum gathered key practitioners and experts from government, academia, civil society and the refugee community in Greece, who all brought with them inspirational examples of how a single person can create invaluable change and impact. In humanitarian emergencies, government provisions focus primarily on access to formal education for primary school-aged children. Access is often limited, slow and difficult to adapt quickly to the needs of newcomers. The forum explored the role of international schools in providing access to education for the displaced, with ACS Athens showcasing its efforts in pro-bono inclusion.
The forum learnt about the work of Impact Hub Athens and SOLE school that create spaces where individuals can engage and regain their sense of dignity through non-formal educational activities. The group learnt about Metadrasi who assist unaccompanied minors through mentorship and foster services. And, importantly, about Hope School – a refugee-led, refugee-run space that provides access to education for 5-13 years olds in the Skaramangas camp in the outskirts of Athens.
The founder and coordinator of Hope School, Deyaa from Syria, shared his motivation, “We were doing nothing at Pireaus, and the children were bored so we decided to teach them conversational English in our tents. It was so well received that the demand for lessons grew and we saw it become our duty, our responsibility.”
The story of Hope School is not unique, but it isn’t common enough either. In cities and sites across Greece and the world, empowered communities should become agents of their own change.
The group agreed that the task isn’t to invent solutions, but to build bridges. All these supportive efforts exist alongside a refugee framework that is bureaucratic and that perpetuates dependence and isolationism. We need to creatively challenge it by fostering collaborations between the plethora of actors present across host countries; we need to find frugal ways to mobilize and connect individuals and initiatives working towards the same goals.
For example, the UNHCR report states that just 1% of refugees attend university, but this is not inevitable. Platforms like Kiron, Edraak and ALISON provide access to free higher education and certified courses. They help to address the issue of unrecognized or absent educational levels and language barriers, but are dependent on connectivity. Bridging this connectivity gap would increase access to employment for many.
So, what could a more structured solution look like?
Inspired by the ‘Cities of Learning’ model in Chicago, the group proposed a platform that promotes learning opportunities supported by schools, colleges, libraries, museums, workplaces, and civic organizations across cities, connecting those providing assistance to those requiring it.
The group highlighted the need to identify and approach the different nodes of the network first and foremost – the refugee community, the educators, the government officials, the individuals offering spaces, the organizations offering resources – and connect them to each other. These collaborations should be framed by three key factors:
1. Connectivity. The development of integrated support systems that nurture collaborations between actors on the ground and the refugee community both in person and online, in order to increase reach and impact.
2. Integration. These initiatives must be co-created with the refugee community from the start of the design process in order to build the capacity for self-care: community engagement and ownership fosters sustainability and ensures relevance.
3. Relevance. To ensure engagement and retention the content should be relatable – the skills and competencies being developed must account for transience and should be transferable beyond their current predicament.
The creation of this platform is entirely possible, but it requires collective action. The challenge may appear large and complex, but every individual can contribute meaningfully. Whether it is through sharing networks, resources or time on the ground, individuals can leverage their positions of privilege to ensure that political inertia does not stunt the intellectual and physical development of generations.
Although strong leadership is needed to change the politics of the situation, stronger cross-sectoral collaboration through educational, cultural and social activities can help alleviate critical psychosocial, developmental and socio-economic elements of this pressing challenge.