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Local and refugee university students supported by JRS in a number of ways: financial, material and human, Kakuma, Kenya (Peter Balleis SJ/ JRS)
Jesuit institutions in partnership to empower refugee communities

Rome, 27 September 2010 – Since its establishment, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has sought to provide quality education for refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. Forced to flee their homes and often their families, an education is frequently one of the few things refugees will bring with them wherever life leads them. For JRS and many refugees, it is the symbol of hope for a better future.

Once thought of as transitory, refugee populations are increasingly static. Recent JRS data for example, suggests that as of 2009 the average stay in a refugee camp is 18 years. In that time a generation will pass before a durable solution for refugees – local integration, repatriation or third country resettlement – is found to their displacement. In the interim, another generation will have been born and educated in exile.

In the past, the provision of primary education was thought to have been sufficient. Recently, there has been growing recognition of the need for secondary education. Yet, even though most agree more trained refugees are essential to help their communities, very few refugees have access to third level education.

Moreover, most experts agree that if refugee communities are to be empowered, they will need their own teachers, social workers, nurses, psychologists and business people. Otherwise, they will remain dependent on donors, NGOs and international governmental agencies.

Higher Education at the Margins

The latest Jesuit initiative, Higher Education at the Margins, seeks to offer refugees opportunities to broaden their minds and help their communities. The programme – a partnership between JRS and Jesuit Commons – combines the best of new technology with the ancient Jesuit philosophy of Ignatian pedagogy which emphasises experience and new learning, reflection and evaluation, action and service.

In action, this means education in Jesuit institutions is not a one-way process. In exchange for quality education, refugees will be expected to engage in voluntary activities in programmes supported by the organisations. While the universities will offer their intellectual property free of charge, the faculty professors, as well volunteering to teach the new students, will be expected to learn from and about refugees and other individuals living in marginalised communities.

Using the expertise of Jesuit universities and JRS field staff, the organisations plan to use both the internet and on-site teachers, mentors and tutors, to offer accredited certificate and diploma courses to refugees in Kakuma (Kenya) and Dzaleka (Malawi) camps, and in urban areas in Syria, as well as certificates of learning, known as Community Service Learning Track (CSLT). In the pilot phase of the programme, ending in August 2014, more than 1,000 refugees are expected to participate.

The admissions phase for the accredited courses is rigorous. Students have to demonstrate evidence of their: academic ability – writing an essay in a monitored environment –, English proficiency and a commitment to serving their communities. As well as the written assessment, all candidates attend oral interviews.

In the first year, 70 students will be admitted to the Diploma in Applied Liberal Studies course and study subjects such as anthropology, business studies, conflict management, critical thinking, intercultural communication, leadership, philosophy. A second cohort will be enrolled in September 2011.

At the end of each year, the students will receive Certificates of Completion from Regis University in Denver, USA, and after three years of successful studies, they will be awarded their diplomas.

Starting in January next year, the majority of the students will begin CSLT courses in areas such as counselling, special needs education, English as a second language (ESL)/ literacy, and mother and child healthcare. Other courses may be added in the future depending on the needs of the participants and availability of academic staff.

In some cases, CSLT courses are a stepping stone to further study. Many students will take English language classes before they can apply for the accredited diploma course or other certificates of learning. In other cases, it is a question of providing refugees with the urgent skills needed to offer practical help in their communities.

Up to 15 students – selected on the basis of academic ability and commitment to community work – will attend each CSTL which will include six months of study and practical placements in the community. For instance, students who study special needs education will be expected to assist special-needs children, adults and their families in the community. The theoretical and practical aspects of the course are mutually reinforcing.

Challenges and hopes

However, providing education in circumstances like these is never without obstacles, both for refugees and service organisations. In this case, environmental – dust, heat and stormy winds –, geographical, social and economic obstacles are, if anything, greater.

The most obvious challenge concerns the establishment of a sustainable supply of electricity and high quality internet access. Materials and IT equipment also had to be sourced, and buildings conducive to student-learning constructed.

But it is looking at the contrast between refugees’ and campus students’ lives that one readily realises these challenges, both academic and material, will be an ongoing struggle. Students often live in extreme poverty where access to food and basic services is never assured. In addition, there is violence in the camps, particularly against women.

While all humanitarian organisations work to assure refugees receive sufficient protection and services, JRS and Jesuit Commons have also developed a 4-month ‘Bridge to Learning’ course to help close this academic gap, covering Ignatian pedagogy, academic writing, and basic IT and learning skills. Moreover, local JRS – Jesuit Commons staff will offer the refugees ongoing on-site academic tutoring.

The goal is to implement this model for higher education wherever there is a need. Refugee education will be provided in partnership with JRS. Other universities and NGOs will be invited to join as partners to increase access to higher education, be it in prisons, slums, or other marginalised communities.

Dr Anne Ziegler, JRS-Jesuit Commons
Dr Tom McFarland, CSLT volunteer
Dr Mary McFarland, Director, Jesuit Commons Higher Education at the Margins