(Vatican Radio) Suad, a Somali girl living in a remote refugee camp in Kenya had little chance of getting an education, much less one at university level. Her fate was not unusual given U.N. statistics that show the average amount of time refugees spend in camps is 17-18 years and few children have access to education. But since 2010, a network of Jesuit charities and educational institutions has been quietly but steadily bringing higher education to refugees like Suad in camps and to disadvantaged communities across Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Since its inception in 2010, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) has been building distant learning higher education programs for more than 2,000 refugees and poor in Kenya, Malawi, Chad, Syria, Afghanistan, Jordan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Taungyyi and the Philippines. Dozens of Jesuit and other universities in the U.S. and abroad are partnering in the initiative which helps prepare people for careers as teachers, in business entrepreneurship and health services.
Refugee education- lost generations: a world problem
Mary McFarland, co-founder and international director of JC:HEM says education “is not a community problem, it’s a world problem.” While hundreds of thousands of refugee children have little or no access to schooling, and are sometimes referred to as “lost generations,” McFarland says JC:HEM has put the emphasis on higher education to prepare community leaders and the educators of tomorrow. “Generations will be lost;” she says, “that is a price the world cannot afford.”
Listen to Tracey McClure's extended interview with Mary McFarland:
The education of girls “is even more dire,” McFarland stresses, citing community beliefs against the education of girls in some countries or cultural barriers prohibiting girls from sitting on the floor – sometimes the only option in schools that don’t possess a blackboard, much less furniture.
“If we do not prepare teachers we can build all the schools in the world – but kids are not going to get educated…We have got to have teachers so that we can get the kids into school,” she asserts.
Earning an education to give back to communities
McFarland says students in the program are not charged tuition, “because they simply do not have money.” But, she adds, “we are very clear with the students, and they appreciate this, that this is not free education. This is education they are earning by their contributions back to their community.”
Students can be as young as 19 or already into their 60’s, she notes, adding that many had been enrolled in higher education programs in their home countries before they became refugees, forced to flee because of conflict.
Partnerships helping to create university environments
McFarland thanks a “very generous single donor” who has sponsored JC:HEM activities through the end of 2015. As the organization becomes increasingly self-sufficient, local partners are expected to cover some operational costs, she explains, and Jesuit Refugee Service helps raise funds to pay the $30.00 monthly fee for each student.
“They are creating university environments in these very remote areas,” McFarland adds, noting that JC:HEM’s online courses can hook up students in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya to a professor and a classroom in Boston, Massachusetts in the U.S.
The courses can lead to a Diploma in Liberal Studies or to vocational education via “Community Service Learning Tracks.”
In Africa, where internet connections can pose a major stumbling block, McFarland marvels that somehow, people with different contacts and types of expertise have shown up at just the right time and resolved the problem, putting JC:HEM on the grid.
Why educate refugees when they can’t get jobs?
Asked why educate refugees at all when most of their host countries will not allow them to work, McFarland explains that understandably, host nations try to protect the job market for natives. It’s a question JC:HEM has added to its curriculum, she says, because it gets students and faculty thinking about why anyone wants to get an education.
“It’s about developing: how are we becoming fully human?” McFarland reflects. “How do we think, how do we use this gift of intelligence?”
She recalls her former Somali refugee student Suad, who earned a Diploma in liberal studies in Kakuma camp to become the camp's first female teacher and then, headmistress, who brought the number of enrolled students from 300 to 1600.
McFarland explains how half of Suad’s family had been killed in Somalia’s civil war in the 1990s; those remaining had fled to Kenya where Suad had to fight to go to school because her family had no money to buy school supplies. They ended up giving up one meal per day to be able to send her to school.
Suad’s answer to why she wanted an education, McFarland recounts, was “we don’t seek education to get a job. We seek education to end ignorance. We want to have a better life, a different life. That’s why we want to come to higher ed.”