Monday, February 5, 2018

A Long Loving Look: Refugee Education and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Samina, an Afghan refugee, is keen to learn English and wants to be a teacher when she grows up. UNHCR 
A Long Loving Look: Refugee Education and the Entrepreneurial Spirit
By Kimberly Megna Yarnall, MNA

As I waited in Heathrow for my connection back to San Francisco, I sent a quick text to my family: “Rome was transformational. Can’t wait to come home. See you soon!” Moments after sending, I considering my wording in light of the experience I’d just had studying refugee management with the AGI-Rome 2018 program.

The UNHCR reports that there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide: 65.6 million people who can’t go home. Or at least who can’t go back to a place of safety, love, dignity and opportunity - all the trappings most of us associate with home. And many of these asylum seekers, after fleeing persecution, surviving arduous journeys, and navigating bewildering policies in foreign languages, still face enormous challenges to creating a new home wherever they find themselves.

Fr. Michael Smith of the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) suggested over lunch on our first day in Rome that we contemplate – to take a long and loving look at – refugee management and integration. His suggestion was simple and smart: what if we looked at every crisis facing the world without haste and without judgment but with open hearts and minds? And so I tried. Here is what most surprised and interested me.

Many of the NGOs we met with spoke of the entrepreneurial spirit of refugees. People who flee their homes with little to no resources have to be courageous, innovative, resourceful, and hardworking. The UNHCR has inspiring examples of the entrepreneurial spirit that many refugees tap into to sustain themselves and enrich their communities. Such as the story of Freddy Kwabo from the Democratic Republic of Congo who started a gaming shop in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi to support his family with the PlayStation2 that he carted with him when he fled his home.

Almost every NGO we met with was adamant that educational opportunity, particularly in language acquisition, is an essential piece to successful integration of refugees into our communities – and for the health of our global community overall. At Caritas Roma we met in a classroom where they teach Italian to refugees and migrants offering four classes everyday from pre-literate to advanced levels. And there are still serious challenges to overcome in refugee education as explained more fully in the UNHCR’s report on refugee education.

Particularly poignant for me, was learning how precarious refugee girls’ education, health, and opportunities are. It’s estimated by the UN that up to 40% of children in the armed forces, militias, and gangs are young girls.

I was therefore heartened to learn that many NGOs, including JRS, are working together to eliminate barriers to keeping girls in school, including social enterprise campaigns to have women make sustainable cloth menstrual pads for girls and women in camps so they retain mobility to go to school. JRS also works in partnership with local religious and spiritual leaders of all faiths to recognize that keeping girls unmarried and in school longer promotes their health and the health of the entire community.

I came to Rome thinking of a “refugee crisis” since that’s the nomenclature used in our media. However, I learned we’re not facing a refugee crisis. We’re facing a long-term endemic migrant reality that needs to be addressed with sustainable solutions. Medici Senza Frontiere (MSF) builds sustainability into their partnerships by training local medical staff, psychologists, and workers so there is a well-organized and highly capable team and institutional framework when MSF exits the area. Similarly, one of JRS’s priorities is their Teacher Formation Program that prepares refugees with 150 hours of training and support to teach primary and secondary classes.

And finally, we had the honor of hearing a refugee’s story firsthand when we met Suzzy at Centro Astalli. She spoke to us not from a place of pain and regret, not as a victim, but as a strong, intelligent, autonomous woman full of gratitude for her life’s journey and for finding a place of comfort and support – for finding home –at Centro Astalli. Her spirit is an inspiration.