What does the right to an education mean for refugees and displaced people?

Febuary, 2015: There are over 10 million people around the world today who live in protracted refugee situations. These are situations in which 25,000 or more people from one country have sought refuge in another country for at least five consecutive years or more. For many Palestinians, for example, that wait has extended for over six decades.

Refugees living in camps often lack access to basic services including education.

In many camps the UNHCR or other NGOs provide some form of primary school education and some refugees are lucky enough to access secondary education. Very few refugees are able to access tertiary education that is recognised outside of the camps.

In 2003, for some refugees in camps along the Thai-Burma border, that changed when the Australian Catholic University (ACU) started a pilot undergraduate Diploma in Business Administration. This course is recognised by other tertiary institutions.

In Thailand, there are currently nine temporary camps, holding around 120,000 registered refugees.

There are 40,000 in the Mae La refugee camp which is on the Thai-Burma border near the town of Mae Sot.

This is one of the areas in which the ACU works to provide tertiary education.

Primary and secondary education is provided by NGOs but refugee children find access to tertiary education almost impossible to obtain.

In fact they are not allowed into Thai universities.

The ACU pays for the students’ food, accommodation and study needs.

Over time and after talking with Burmese leaders in the camps, the course changed and has evolved into the current eight-unit undergraduate Diploma of Liberal Studies.

Students who have graduated from the program often find work with non-government organisations in the area.

Some have been able to obtain scholarships which have enabled them to further their studies at overseas universities.

When ACU began the Diploma of Liberal Studies it did so along with three Jesuit Universities in the United States, Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington; Fairfield University, in Connecticut; and Regis University in Denver, Colorado.

The courses are run as a mixture of face-to-face and online study.

In 2012, Dr Terry-Ann Jones, Director of International Studies and Associate Professor of Sociology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, taught ‘People Places and Global Issues’, to the Burmese students on the Thai-Burma border.

Dr Jones was based at Fairfield University and taught the Burmese students online.

This teaching commitment was in addition to her regular full-time responsibilities and it was integrated with her US based students.

Logistics she said was an issue – the course textbook did not arrive in Thailand for several weeks after the course had started.

Dr Jones said that her Thai-based students were very open in their communications, while her American students were not quite as open; they felt that they did not have as many experiences as the Burmese students; neither did the topics discussed affect their lives in such a direct way.

Dr Jones said this difference created an opportunity “for a discussion regarding privilege and the ways in which global events affect people’s lives differently based on such factors as their geographic location, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc., as well as their political and socioeconomic contexts”.

She found that teaching the course an immensely rewarding experience. Her area of speciality is international migration and she said, “It was good for me to hear these students’ perspectives”.

The idea of tertiary education for refugees originated from an Australian Jesuit priest, Father Michael Smith who visited a refugee camp in the Philippines in 1983/4. It was here that the idea of tertiary education for refugees first occurred to him – however, he realised at the time that it was an impractical dream.

By the time he visited the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border in 2000 what had seemed improbable in 1983 was, in the era of the internet, a definite possibility.

From Father Michael’s first kernel of an idea in 1983, the idea and practice of tertiary education for refugees as a qualification that is recognised by higher education institutions outside of refugee camps has grown.

Professor Mary McFarland former Dean of Professional Studies at Gonzaga University and now the International Director of Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins  (JC:HEM) heard Father Michael speak on a visit to Denver, Colorado in 2006.

In a 2013 TedX Georgetown Talk, Professor McFarland spoke about how Father Michael’s words had affected her.

“He said: “The people I met, they are so smart, they are so bright and they are standing, literally standing and watching their lives go by”.

He then asked “Isn’t there something we can do?”

Professor McFarland said: “When I heard that I could physically, viscerally feel what that must be like to be trapped.

“If you are smart enough and you are filled with energy but you have nowhere to go, nowhere to connect with the world, for me, I thought that would be like waking up in hell”.

She, and her husband, Tom McFarland, Emeritus Professor of Education, at Lewis-Clark State College, spent two months teaching the Burmese students on the Thai–Burma border, they were then asked by Jesuit Commons and Jesuit Refugee Service to set up a similar program in Malawi.

Currently JC:HEM offers online higher education programs to over 500 refugees in Malawi, Kenya, Syria and Jordan.

It also provides vocational training in response to specific needs identified by the host community. These Community Service Learning Tracks can lead to entrance into the Diploma program.

Professor McFarland said that due to security reasons most refugees will not return to their home country.

She said that what the Liberal Studies course does is help the students think differently, as one graduate said: “We don’t ask for education because we want a job, we ask for education because we want to fight ignorance”.

© Suganthi Singarayar

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