The Mounting Challenges in Refugee Education

By: Rebecca Robison, Reporter

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The global rise in the number of conflicts, particularly protracted conflicts, has resulted in a drastic increase in refugees. In fact, the number of displaced persons worldwide has reached its highest level since World War II.

The event “A Crisis Unfolding: Access to Education for Refugees in Africa?” held on October 11th and sponsored by Georgetown University’s Africa Studies Program addressed one of the most neglected areas of this epidemic—education for refugees. Giulia McPherson, Director of Advocacy and Operations at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (JRS), highlighted the gravity of this global crisis by presenting unsettling statistics from last year’s reports on the international refugee crisis.

Ms. McPherson began her presentation by detailing the present global refugee situation and JRS’s work in the area of education before delving into a case study on Chad. Currently, conflicts and persecution have caused the displacement of 65.5 million people worldwide. In 2016 alone, 10.3 million newly displaced persons joined this list. These figures encompass internally displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers. The media has largely focused on the refugee crisis arising from the conflict in Syria. With 5.5 million refugees and over about 6 million internally displaced persons, Syria tops the list of countries producing refugees. These are shocking statistics in light of the fact that these displaced persons figures amount to about half of Syria’s entire population.

Children compose 51% of the world’s refugees, creating a dire need for educational resources for these at-risk youths. Living in limbo, without a permanent home, the unsettled nature of a refugee child’s life hampers their educational prospects. In Africa, the largest number of new refugees came from South Sudan. The influx of these refugees from South Sudan has financially and administratively strained Chad, the country that hosts them. Most protracted conflicts occur in Africa and some refugee camps can exist for 20 years. Since the average length of displacement stands at 17 years, children who are raised in refugee camps may go their entire childhood without access to adequate education.

McPherson shared the history of JRS and how they seek to provide educational services for refugees around the world and in particular for communities in Africa. Fitting for Georgetown’s Jesuit heritage, JRS recognizes the centrality of education in improving the human condition. Globally, JRS serves in 51 countries reaching a total of 730,000 refugees in 2016. In each community, JRS seeks to fulfill its mission to “Accompany. Serve. Advocate.” Coupled with education recourses, JRS’s on the ground staff conduct home visits, provide counseling services, emphasize care for refugees with disabilities, and offer legal representation for refugees. Citing the U.N. refugee agency, McPherson noted that of the 6 million primary and secondary school aged refugees 3.5 million are not in school, further underscoring the dearth of educational opportunities available to these vulnerable populations. As these children age, their access to education plummets with only 61% having access to primary school, 23% to secondary school, and 1% to tertiary education.

A myriad of challenges unique to refugees compounds the difficulties in providing sufficient education for these displaced populations. With a preponderance of funds for refugees going towards food and other basic necessities, education often lacks adequate financing. The infrastructure for schools, including resources and buildings, does not exist. Crossing borders into a foreign nation adds additional complications since refugee children may not be familiarized with the local language or the manner of instruction. Families often hesitate to send their children to the already established regional schools for fear of discrimination. Once a refugee child has the opportunity to attend school, a learning gap, both academically and socially, frequently impedes their progress. Reintegrating into such a social environment, especially if it is in a new cultural context, proves challenging for children who have also experienced a significant amount of trauma.

To help ease this transition, JRS works to provide educational resources for both refugee camps and refugee communities in urban areas. They offer afterschool tutoring, both traditional and nontraditional education, language instruction, trauma healing, and extracurricular activities. In 2015, JRS launched a five-year campaign to double the number of children who have access to JRS programs. In order to further engage the local population and provide employment opportunities, JRS recruits teachers from the refugee community.

McPherson personalized her presentation by focusing on the population in Chad where she first visited a refugee camp. Camps in eastern Chad provide a temporary home to some 300,000 Sudanese refugees from the Darfur genocide. Chad itself already faces tremendous challenges as a nation and currently ranks 185 out of 188 on the UN Human Development Index. For over a decade, Chad has experienced an influx of Sudanese refugees. Beginning in 2006, JRS started operating most of the education for refugees in this region.

Presently, deep budget cuts in Chad have resulted in an increasing number of families relying on their children for work, which subsequently inhibits the children’s ability to attend school. McPherson showed photos from her trip to the refugee camp in Chad where their school consisted of a thatched roof held up by sticks. With children needed for chores at home and minimal meetings spaces for those who can attend school, they are often limited to attending in shifts, where the primary school gathers in the morning and high schoolers meet in the afternoon. This system cuts down the amount of instruction time these students receive.

Since a decade has passed and the Sudanese refugee population still cannot return home, JRS has begun to help the refugee population transition to Chad’s French curriculum. Yet, pressing economic difficulties have resulted in a high dropout rate. To combat this departure from formal education, JRS goes door to door to educate the community about the resources available and the need for children to remain in school. JRS works to recruit teachers from Chad to train the Sudanese teachers. In order to further involve parents in the education of their children, JRS has created parent associations and even offered business skills training. In partnership with the government of Chad, JRS has sponsored a teacher training college. The 40 teachers enrolled have promised jobs from Chad’s government upon completion of the program. Results of JRS’s involvement in education in Chad include the doubling of the number of students registered for their secondary school exams and almost tripling the number of students who passed the exam.

The increased politicization of refugee policy in Europe and the United States has increased the challenges of refugee education. McPherson encouraged Georgetown students to raise awareness and fundraise for these programs. With the Trump Administration’s proposed 30% cut in foreign assistance, the burden of financing such programs provided by JRS falls more heavily on individual donors. Efforts to communicate the gravity of this issue as well as generate more funds can not only immediately affect the lives of refugee children, but also enhance regional security and stability as the next generation raises their quality of life through education, and subsequently gains better employment opportunities and tools to help improve their communities.

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