Online learning inspires refugees
Sanky Kabeya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has spent half of his 24 years in Dzaleka refugee camp in central Malawi. He attended primary and secondary school in the camp but, after graduating, his dream of furthering his education seemed an impossible one.
“I was just staying at home with nothing to do and I lost hope in everything,” he recalled.
With only three-quarters of refugee children accessing primary education and just over a third enrolled in secondary schools, according to a recent assessment by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), higher education is generally considered a low priority and opportunities for young refugees like Kabeya are extremely limited.
Recently, however, there has been a growing recognition of the benefits that higher education can bring, not just to individual refugees, but to the vast reconstruction needs of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and the DRC which will require a new generation of teachers and other professionals when peace finally comes.
According to Audrey Nirrengarten, an education officer with UNHCR, there is also evidence that offering continuing education opportunities motivates more refugee children to complete primary and secondary school.
An education strategy released by UNHCR in February recognized the “huge unmet demand for higher education among refugees” and made improving access one of its goals over the next five years.
Although part of this approach involves doubling the current 2,000 scholarships a year available to refugees through the German-government-funded DAFI programme, a key element of the strategy is to make use of internet technologies and partnerships with academic institutions to reach much larger numbers of refugees through distance learning.
International Catholic NGO Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) is pioneering this approach through a pilot project at three refugee camps, including Dzaleka, which offers small groups of refugees the opportunity to study towards a diploma in liberal studies from Regis University in Denver, Colorado at no cost. For refugees who do not meet the academic requirements, but are keen to further their education, JRS has developed several vocational courses in areas such as community health and entrepreneurship.
“JRS tries to do things that other organizations aren’t doing and this was certainly identified as a gap,” said David Holdcroft, JRS’s Johannesburg-based regional director. “The suffering in camps results from frustration building over years of not being able to prepare for the future.”
Now in his second year of the three-year course, Kabeya’s feelings about the future have changed dramatically. “I’m very inspired, I’ve obtained a lot,” he told IRIN. “I want to make my future bright.”
''The suffering in camps results from frustration building over years of not being able to prepare for the future''
At Dzaleka, which is home to 18,000 refugees, mainly from the DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, the courses are mostly done online using solar-powered computers, but the students’ Skype interactions with their professors in the USA are supplemented by on-site tuition from an academic coordinator and two interns. “The need for cultural and linguistic adaptation was too great,” said programme coordinator Clotilde Giner, explaining that most of the 60 students are French speakers who have learned English through classes at the camp.
Carine Nice, 22, spoke no English when she arrived at Dzaleka four years ago, but she held on to her hopes of becoming a doctor. She had been in her second year of medical school when conflict erupted in the North Kivu region of DRC where she lived and she was forced to flee with her mother and five siblings.
“When I arrived, it was boring in the camp and I felt I was still young and needed to learn,” she told IRIN. After taking English and computer classes, she jumped at the opportunity to enrol in the diploma programme.
She is one of only eight women on the course. “According to the culture, [women think] studies are for men, and have low self-esteem,” she said.
Nice is fulfilling a requirement of the programme that students transfer some of the knowledge they are gaining to other camp residents, by leading a weekly discussion group for women aimed at improving their English and their confidence to apply for the programme next year.
Unlike scholarships available through the DAFI programme, the JRS programme is open to all ages and educational backgrounds.
Gustave Lwaba, a 47-year-old from the DRC, gave up his job teaching at Dzaleka’s primary school to enrol in the course. Opportunities to earn an income are scarce in the camp so the decision was a difficult one, said Lwaba, who has a wife and three children. “I was hungering for tertiary education and I didn’t have that chance in my country,” he explained. “I wanted more skills to help the community or even if I can be repatriated.”
If the JRS programme helps Lwaba achieve his goal of becoming a tertiary-level teacher, it could benefit not just him and his family, but a future generation of learners in the DRC and reconstruction efforts in that country.
It is these broader goals that inform the thinking behind another project to bring higher education to refugees due to be launched at Dadaab camp in Kenya in the next academic year through a joint initiative between Canada’s York University and Kenya’s Kenyatta University.
Like the JRS programme, it will blend online and face-to-face learning, but will give students the option of earning a four-year bachelor’s degree, or opting out after two or three years with a teaching diploma.
“We’re also aiming towards something that could be accessed from anywhere so that if someone were to start the programme and then be repatriated or resettled, they could continue,” said Sarah Dryden-Peterson, a researcher at the University of Toronto, who is involved in the project.
Dryden-Peterson said refugee students tend to be extremely motivated. “They’re looking for any kind of printed material they can get their hands on to learn and keep their brains active,” she told IRIN. “More and more what we’re seeing is that with the opening up of telecommunications and internet access, refugees are following online courses and developing their own ways of learning by pulling things off the internet.”
Participants in JRS’s programme at Dzaleka need to be motivated to stick with their studies in a camp environment where poor living conditions and insufficient food can be a major distraction. In March, the World Food Programme, which supplies food aid to the camp, slashed rations for refugees by half due to a lack of funding and many of the students quietly typing at computers in the programme’s makeshift classroom were working on empty stomachs.
“It’s very difficult when you eat less and have to study, and we don’t know what will happen next month,” said Nice, who juggles her studies with helping her mother at home and working as an interpreter for UNHCR and JRS.
Kabeya said frequent blackouts meant he often strained his eyes studying by the light of a candle and that his friends told him he was wasting his time. “But I’m getting good grades and I’m very motivated because I have a goal.”