The idea of offering higher education online to refugees seemed like a chimera. But the recent graduation of the first group of refugee students in Kenya and Malawi has acted as an impetus to improve services in Jordan; it has become clear that food and shelter is not enough to offer refugees a future.
The online higher education programme managed by JRS and Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) provides both. It offers an opportunity to restore some sense of normality to the lives of refugees, while at the same time offering opportunities to grow intellectually and improve the likelihood of becoming economically self-sufficient.
The Middle East project was originally established for Iraqi refugees in Aleppo in 2011, but had to be suspended the following year after a deterioration in security. Even though the Aleppo courses were only open for 12 months, a number of former students there have gone on to contribute to their communities inside and outside of Syria as JRS project workers, teachers and active members in civil society.
Contagion of knowledge. With such large numbers of refugees arriving into the country, JRS finally opened the programme in Amman last July; and it was an immediate hit.
"Initially, we just made an announcement at the JRS education centre, but the news quickly spread among the various refugees communities by word of mouth and in the end, a large number of people participated in the selection process", said Katie Merriman who helped establish the project.
Students take 6-month certificate courses in what is known as the Community Service Learning Track (CSLT). Subsequently, some students are expected to go on and take future diploma courses, accredited by Regis University in the US.
The first CSLT course in Amman is in English interpretation in response to an extensive survey conducted among the Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese and Somali communities served by JRS in Amman. The curriculum was developed by onsite facilitators, under the supervision of Professor Bennet Lindauer, the Regis University facilitator.
The group of students selected is characterised by their diversity: a mix of men and women ranging from 17 to 50 years old. They come from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine and Chad – each with very different life stories.
Huda had to leave Damascus as she was about to start university. Ahmed, from Iraq, has been living with his family in Jordan for several years awaiting resettlement.
"This training helps refugees to move forward, to continue to build their future from where they are right now", says Katie.
The course aims to develop skills that the students will be able to use directly. It is also intended to build their self-confidence and leadership skills, helping them to become actively involved in their communities, either as refugees or one day back at home.
After an intensive session of English language, they will complete specialisation modules in fields of tourism, medicine, non-governmental organisations and law. During each of these modules the students will meet professionals active in these sectors. This allows them to build a professional network and gain hands on experience.
"I can get in touch with other support services and have greater means to tell people about our conditions and situation", said Samer, a Syrian who works at a hospital offering medical assistance to refugees in Amman.
"I'll be able to help newcomers from Sudan in the various procedures to be undertaken as soon as they arrive in Jordan. The more competent I am the better I'll be able to help!" said Haroun, a Sudanese student whose community faces great difficulties living in Jordan.
Allowing refugees to make contributions is essential to promoting integration and ensuring their talents are put to use in their new communities. The provision of higher education is one way of harnessing the professional and intellectual energy of people forced to flee their homes. Success could mean more stable and open societies in the future.