Already offering online third-level education to refugees in Kenya, Jordan and Malawi, the Jesuit Refugee Service, in cooperation with Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), is about to extend this opportunity to students in South Asia. Over the next few months the Jesuit Refugee Service South Asia will begin offering online courses to displaced persons in north and east Sri Lanka and returnee communities in rural Afghanistan.
The two Jesuit organisations will provide marginalised communities access to courses accredited by Jesuit universities in India, in order to offer them a contextual, quality education. Moreover, the new Jesuit initiative will use online communications through its global network to facilitate cooperation between Jesuit structures committed to working for a more just world.
The Jesuit Commons uses "the important component of Jesuit education is its transformational nature. Our Jesuit education by-line is: transform thinking, transform the world. And that's the goal of the curriculum", said the international director of JC:HEM, Mary McFarland, in a recent interview.
JRS South Asia has always had a focus on quality education, said JRS South Asia Director, Stan Fernandes SJ.
"Extending and enriching our initiatives at the tertiary levels through online education has always been our dream," he said. "Learning from the JC:HEM experience at the Denver Conference gave us the confidence that we could make it a reality for South Asia."
Both these communities on the margins of society have had little chance to access quality education, until now.
In north and east Sri Lanka, where JRS already supports education for people displaced by conflict, JRS staff are planning to establish four distance-learning centres where 100 students will have a chance at a three-year diploma programme. Ten JRS staff are now trained as online and on-site training facilitators, and the process of selecting students for English-language and computer courses is now underway.
"But it will have to start small. We do it all gradually, starting with the training of trainers. Then we'll start with an ESL and computer science programme to get them prepared for online university education", said Fr Maria Joseph, online programme coordinator for JRS South Asia. In the interim, the two Jesuit partner universities – St Xavier's in Kolkata and St Xavier's in Mumbai – are getting prepared to offer the courses.
In Afghanistan, JRS has been providing primary, secondary and informal education since 2005. Last year, teams in Bamiyan, Herat, Daikundi and Kabul offered training and support to teachers, as well as direct services to 4,500 boys and girls. The JRS-supported Herat Technical Institute has grown rapidly in seven years, and today offers technical hands-on education and English-language training to 880 students, including more than 230 girls.
With the introduction of online education, the students of schools like the Herat Technical Institute will receive the opportunity to produce the qualified and competent workforce Afghanistan will need as it attempts to take the path of development and self-reliance.
Unlike the JC:HEM in Africa, JRS South Asia is looking to partner with local Jesuit institutes of higher education to tailor courses for the local culture in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and also introduce them to global ideas and thinking.
"The goals are really around learning. The development of new knowledge base, of leaders who can think differently, solve problems on behalf of their community, wherever that community is. So if it's in the camp, how they will enrich their own life and those they serve? It could open up a possibility for those who repatriate to assist their communities in a very different way", Ms McFarland said.
If children like Azar can safely dream of becoming doctors through the cooperation of local and regional universities, the real revolutionary change will not only be the expansion of higher education to marginalised communities, but the promotion of north-south cooperation and regional capacity. In this case it is in Indian universities, but the process has only just started.
Molly Mullen, communications consultant, Jesuit Refugee Service International Office