Understanding the Connections: Refugees and Education

A few years ago, my friend introduced me to a new author she really enjoyed, Dave Eggers.  I first read his work You Shall Know My Velocity, then moved on to his autobiographical book Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius.  Not only did I love his writing, but also when I read his life story, I became so intrigued that my behavior began to border obsessive (to give you context, I searched through the entire Real World 1994 San Francisco season to find the thirty second clip that he was featured in).  So naturally, I was really excited to read yet another of his books.  What is the What had a different impression on me, however.  Instead of my curiosity being sparked by the man behind the words, I was suddenly fixated on the new man the story depicted.  A Sudanese refugee, Valentino Achak Deng shares his true story with Eggers to create a tale of the struggles of a refugee both during a crisis and in the aftermath of the event.  This book opened my eyes to the immense challenges a refugee child faces when fighting for their life during the war and in their new home and in the numerous camps and placements where they must make a new life for themselves afterwards.  Researching more about the experience of a refugee, I discovered an important disconnect that seems to be commonly overlooked; education and its place in a refugee’s story.

I believe it’s incredibly important to study conflicts from a multitude of perspectives.  When we first explore the refugee crisis across the world, we may see the issue as a numbers problem. With 43.7 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide, a growing number of individuals must survive without a state to protect and provide for them.  This figure seems overwhelming and difficult to comprehend on a person-by-person case.  From here, we may struggle with who actually qualifies as a refugee.  Examining the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) definition as “any person who is unable or unwilling to re-enter their home nation due to a well-founded fear of persecution,” we can question the meaning of the terms “unable” or “well-founded” as generalizations for multiple conflicts in different countries with diverse demographic populations.  But while we can debate the technicalities, we cannot deny the needs of these victims.

I’d like to begin to examine these needs beyond the physical basics necessary to survive, such as water, food, and shelter.  These basic resources are obviously critical for survival, but what is also critical is the need to build peace and create a lasting solution to the conflict that originally caused the lack of food, shelter, and water.  In order to tackle this massive problem, new and innovative ways to looking at the refugee crisis should be explored.  I believe focusing on the individual, and especially on the children, is the first step to finding impactful solutions.  By making the connection between education and refugees’ path to a peaceful and sustainable future, a new way to strategize solutions to the refugee crisis can be considered.

Growing up in a world of violence and conflict, such as Valentino did, refugee children have little to no access to stability and consistency in their day-to-day life.  Although access to education is a worldwide issue not limited to displaced persons, it is especially important for refugee children, as time in a classroom creates a safe environment and helps establish a productive routine.  Additionally, considering all of the hardships these violent conflicts create, these children should not have to also sacrifice the early years of their development by missing access to an education.

In recent years, the issue of education improvement has been addressed globally; however, a lack of attention and resources has been given to refugees and their education.  The UN has defined education as “universal and inalienable” entitlement that everyone must be provided, regardless of his or her religion, gender, ethnicity or economic status.  This recognition of education as an entitlement is an important step in bringing education access issues to the forefront of international policies.  Consequently, the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) include the pledge “to ensure that, by [2015], children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”  However, the implementation of the MDGs fail to put resources and attention on refugee children.

Some important organizations have worked to bring educational opportunities to refugees.  The United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF) works for primary aged children and provides educational resources in refugee camps.  In addition, the UNHCR partners with organizations such as NineMillion.org and the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative to help with extracurricular activities and secondary education scholarships.  These programs not only lack funding, but in my opinion, miss an important opportunity; education for refugees can be used as a tool for peace-building.  By linking educational opportunities to fixing the conflict itself, refugees can be transformed into their own agents of change.  By providing an education and job training opportunities to young refugees, you’re creating an empowered new generation. Through education, economic self-sufficiency can be an important step to end reliance on countries of asylum and on the UNHCR.  Additionally, this next generation will be the agents of peace and conflict resolution in their country of origin, creating solutions to the original problems that caused conflict and displacement.

Many issues face all children across the globe.  With the additional problems refugees face, namely their loss of home and family stability, the world should pay particular attention to creating a sense of consistency and control in the refugee child’s life.  Moreover, education is both a tool of stability in the present and a tool for peace-building in the future. We need to begin to understand the refugee crisis from all angles, and start to connect improved access to education to ending the refugee crisis.


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