When we think of the needs of refugees, what comes to mind is what do I need to survive — shelter, water, food and services. But organizations working among the world’s 25 million refugees are now demonstrating the vital importance of education in restoring a sense of purpose, dignity and hope for the future. While education imparts important practical skills, it also raises spirits and points the way to a life of self-sufficiency — outcomes confirmed by both empirical research and experience on the ground in many countries.
These benefits are especially important for refugee children of school age, who all face major obstacles to healthy development. But for the 3.7 million refugee children who have no school to go to, these obstacles are especially acute.
Refugees remain displaced, on average, for a period of 10 years. In that span of time, millions of kids miss out on the opportunities they need to thrive physically and emotionally. Even refugee camps that do offer schooling are often poorly resourced, forcing children to postpone a proper education until they’ve left the camp to integrate into a new society. And students who lack structure in other parts of life may not feel motivated to do well in school, while learning is often the only time they find structure
Below is a brief look at several non-governmental organizations that are devoting significant resources to helping refugee children achieve their educational goals. In addition to their work providing practical aid, these organizations are adding to an expanding knowledge base on how best to educate displaced populations.
Jesuit Refugee Service
The Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (JRS/USA) provides education, healthcare, and other services to refugees. The guiding principle in this work is to make humanitarian aid part of “journeying” closely with refugees, typically with the goal of integration into host communities.
Education, a core activity of JRS, is offered to refugees and displaced persons in 42 countries. JRS provides educational services at all levels: pre-school, primary, secondary, professional and post-secondary. These services cover not just traditional curricula but programs and services to meet the special needs of particular communities, including special education, distance education, scholarships, life-skills and vocational training, adult literacy, computer and language classes, and accelerated learning programs.
JRS takes wide-ranging responsibility for training teachers, paying salaries, building schools, providing school furniture, and supporting student and parent-teacher associations. JRS, like other organizations of its kind, is also exploring the new educational opportunities afforded by information technology.
Sesame Workshop, International Rescue Committee Project and the LEGO Foundation
The MacArthur Foundation is strongly committed to making education a higher priority in humanitarian aid. That commitment is reflected in a $100 million grant made to Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), aimed at educating young children displaced by upheaval in the Syrian response region (Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria).
The program delivers customized educational content through television, mobile phones, digital platforms and direct services. It provides pan-Arab content to help young children acquire vital language, reading, math and socio-emotional skills. Home visitation sessions connect caregivers to local outreach and community health workers — sessions supported by storybooks, parent brochures, caregiver guides, toys and games. The project partners are also transforming community sites into child development centers dedicated to play-based learning.
The MacArthur Foundation and grant recipients are of one mind about the long-term purpose of this and similar projects: to provide inspiration to other NGOs in promoting education-centered aid for children in crisis.
Last year, the LEGO Foundation announced a five-year, $100 million grant to Sesame Workshop as part of the Sesame Workshop/ IRC project described above. Its purpose is to aid young children affected by the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh and the crisis in the Syrian response region. Sesame Workshop is working in partnership with BRAC, the Bangladeshi NGO; the International Rescue Committee (IRC); and New York University’s Global TIES for Children.
The project partners offers direct services through BRAC’s network of Humanitarian Play Labs for pre-school children from both Rohingya refugee and Bangladeshi host populations, using culturally appropriate play materials. The children are provided with a new generation of Muppets videos, storybooks, games and puzzles. In addition, Sesame Workshop shares its videos through mobile and pop-up viewings in refugee and host communities.
The LEGO Foundation’s grant is the first third-party response to the challenge posed by the MacArthur Foundation to make humanitarian aid better serve young children affected by crisis. The grant is also a strong endorsement of the play-based approach to learning, especially for those who have experienced the trauma of life in refugee camps.
Project Hope was a study carried out as part of a program for Syrian refugee children in Turkey, who face serious language and mental health barriers to educational success. The researchers used a carefully designed set of instructional interventions to determine how best to overcome these barriers. These included Cerego, an adaptive learning application; Minecraft, the popular building game; and other games to teach skills like coding. A total of 147 children were assigned to either the intervention or control group.
Of all the interventions, Cerego was rated by participants as the most enjoyable (78% liked it) and most effective (82% felt they learned from it). Post-intervention Turkish tests confirmed the effectiveness of Cerego in improved understanding of Turkish, a crucial factor in the children’s educational future, especially integration into local schools.
Education for Children Brings Hope
Most importantly, the interventions collectively produced encouraging changes in the children’s mental health. Using an established psychological measure, the researchers found a substantial improvement in the children’s negative expectations for the future, which declined by 55% over the course of the study.
Mobile Learning for Refugees on Lesvos
The new educational opportunities provided by IT was the subject of a previous blog post of mine: “Finding Refuge In Learning? The Emergent Role Of Mobile Learning For Refugees On Lesvos.” In it I described my experience as a participant in the Changemakers Conference held in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesvos which is the location of a major refugee settlement that houses thousands of Syrians who have fled their homes.
I was invited to talk to NGO workers and refugee camp teachers about mobile learning and other education technology solutions. We held workshops on design thinking, along with an introduction to coding.
I came away from this experience more convinced than ever of the many positive opportunities offered by mobile learning. It will take more than just a cellphone in every pocket to meet the educational needs of the refugees on Lesvos and globally. But my new friends there, and leaders of the projects shared in this post, have shown just how far educational technologies can take us in making children happier, healthier and, above all, more hopeful about their futures.”