Giulia McPherson is director of advocacy and operations at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. She has more than 15 years of experience working with international development and humanitarian assistance organizations. You can follow her on Twitter @GiuliaMcPherson.
None of us can dispute the value education holds, and the power it wields. This is no different for refugee children and youth who both crave the opportunity to go to school, but also face some of the steepest challenges.
Globally, more than half of school-age refugees—about 4 million children—are currently out of school. These include Rohingya children who fled genocide in Myanmar as little as two years ago, as well as Darfuri children who were born in refugee camps in eastern Chad over a decade ago. While countries and contexts may vary greatly, the desire to go to school remains constant.
I recently returned from a visit to Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) programs in Uganda, one of more than 50 countries where JRS works to meet the educational, health, psychosocial, and emergency needs of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. I was able to see where JRS serves almost 10,000 people a year by providing food and medical assistance as well as comprehensive education and livelihoods programming.
There, I met Victoria, who spoke earnestly about her desire to finish school and make her parents proud. A 14-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I met Victoria one late January day before her final semester of middle school was to start. She came to the JRS office in Kampala, Uganda to retrieve her most recent report card. She said she had spent the two-month break brushing up on her math and science skills, knowing that’s what it would take to get into secondary school.
Victoria left the DRC when she was six years old, along with her parents and older sister. Her family fled violence and conflict that has plagued her country for decades. “They were raping people; we fled to build a better life,” she told me. After arriving in Uganda, her mother learned about JRS and enrolled herself in an English course. While their mother studied, Victoria and her sister would join the “Baby Class,” specifically for children of JRS students. Victoria ultimately received a JRS scholarship to attend a local, private, elementary school and has hopes of becoming a doctor.
“My mom is so happy to see me go to school. My future lies here. If I go to school, I can become the person I always dreamed of being.”
Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa with over 1.4 million refugees within its borders. Of these, 61 percent are estimated to be children under the age of 18 years old. In 1999, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Government of Uganda started implementing a Self-Reliance Strategy for refugees by providing small plots of land and allowing them free access to government health and education services. Since then, Uganda has served as a model example in the international community by granting refugees in Uganda asylum and access to the same rights as its citizens.
By welcoming and integrating refugee children into schools, Uganda has demonstrated that refugees are an asset, not a burden. Education helps refugees recover from trauma, build resilience, and develop skills that will benefit them as individuals as well as their families and larger communities.
Host governments must allow for integration of refugees into their communities by enrolling refugee children into local school systems, certifying refugee teachers, and providing access to employment opportunities. The Global Compact on Refugees, adopted in late 2018, offers a tool to help bolster cooperation among donors and host communities with integration as a key component of the recommendations it sets forth.
Victoria was only one of a dozen students I spoke with during my time in Uganda. She was not alone in demonstrating her intellect and determination in her quest to achieve an education. We must work together—as donors, as practitioners, and as people of faith—to help make those dreams a reality.
To learn more about refugee education, please read McPherson’s latest policy brief for JRS: “Her Future: Challenges & Recommendations to Increase Education for Refugee Girls.”