Online learning inspires refugees

Sanky Kabeya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has spent half of his 24 years in...

Desk and chairs at high school. Picture: Tshepo Lesole

Sanky Kabeya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has spent half of his 24 years in Dzaleka refugee camp in central Malawi.

He attended primary and secondary school in the camp but, after graduating, his dream of furthering his education seemed an impossible one.

"I was just staying at home with nothing to do and I lost hope in everything," he recalled.

With only three-quarters of refugee children accessing primary education and just over a third enrolled in secondary schools, according to a recent assessment by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), higher education is generally considered a low priority and opportunities for young refugees like Kabeya are extremely limited.

Recently, however, there has been a growing recognition of the benefits that higher education can bring, not just to individual refugees, but to the vast reconstruction needs of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and the DRC which will require a new generation of teachers and other professionals when peace finally comes.

According to Audrey Nirrengarten, an education officer with UNHCR, there is also evidence that offering continuing education opportunities motivates more refugee children to complete primary and secondary school.

An education strategy released by UNHCR in February recognised the "huge unmet demand for higher education among refugees" and made improving access one of its goals over the next five years.

Although part of this approach involves doubling the current 2,000 scholarships a year available to refugees through the German-government-funded DAFI programme, a key element of the strategy is to make use of internet technologies and partnerships with academic institutions to reach much larger numbers of refugees through distance learning.

International Catholic NGO Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is pioneering this approach through a pilot project at three refugee camps, including Dzaleka, which offers small groups of refugees the opportunity to study towards a diploma in liberal studies from Regis University in Denver, Colorado at no cost. For refugees who do not meet the academic requirements, but are keen to further their education, JRS has developed several vocational courses in areas such as community health and entrepreneurship.

"JRS tries to do things that other organizations aren't doing and this was certainly identified as a gap," said David Holdcroft, JRS's Johannesburg-based regional director. "The suffering in camps results from frustration building over years of not being able to prepare for the future."