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How to Teach Students Who are Refugees

Malawian girls on their way to school near Lilongwe

The great promise of online higher education was that it would expand access to people who could otherwise not reach it. Higher education, once reserved for the children of the elite, came into mainstream access in the United States with the passage of the GI Bill in the mid-1900s. Globally, though, higher education remains a possibility for only the smallest number of people. At the same time, we know that education creates more stable societies, improves economic opportunities for individuals, and provides skilled employees for companies and organizations. With the advent of online education in the late 20th Century, the hope for greater reach of university instruction seemed like a sure solution of the problems with its limited reach.

And yet, higher education remains elusive for the most marginalized in our world.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 65 million displaced persons, a number that has ballooned in the last decade due to the Syrian crisis, with 22 million considered refugees. Refugees are those who must flee their home due to a fear of political persecution, due to war, or due to environmental disaster. They have limited options and are very often the victims of trauma. Of those refugees, only 1% has access to higher education (UNHCR, 2015). Without access to higher education, refugees – who are some of the most vulnerable individuals in the world – will not be able to improve their situation, they will remain subject to the whims of governments where they reside, and they may not have the skills and confidence they need in order to advocate for themselves.

Who Is Involved

The good news is that schools and organizations are stepping in to help. Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, NH partnered with Kepler, an on-the-ground partner in Rwanda, to provide higher education to learners in the Kiziba Refugee Camp. They have also received a $10 million grant to boost that partnership and expand their reach.

Kiron – a social enterprise organization based in Berlin, Germany – has taken this space by storm by linking learners who are resettled refugees in Germany, Jordan, and elsewhere with institutions who will accept prior credits or will provide scholarships. They also provide a service called "Direct Academics" to tutor refugee students who are taking MOOCs through organizations like edX.

Coursera, the company that provides online courses from top universities globally, has a program called Coursera for Refugees that provides free courses for credit.

The University of Geneva operates a program called InZone, which runs higher education courses in a hybrid fashion in places such as the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya. They are unique in their refugee-led approach, believing that full empowerment comes when refugees are brought into the conversation about what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and how to manage the organization on-site.

Finally, World Education Services of Canada (WUSC) provides opportunities for refugees to resettle in Canada and receive a university education.

Best Practices

Many higher education faculty members want to be involved in such an endeavor. Not only is teaching students in such environments meaningful and rewarding, but it can enhance one's teaching skills as well. In my own experience teaching refugee students from 2013 to 2016, I learned about their cultures, their understanding of content from a non-western perspective, and how inappropriate course assignments or discussion prompts can add a humorous or even painful dimension to the experience. As the opportunities for teaching students at the margins only continues to grow, you will need a collection of tools and tips to help you succeed:

  1. Set expectations clearly and early. Students just coming to online learning without a cultural background in understanding it, may not immediately realize that learning is asynchronous. While you hope students have been prepared to be online learners, in environments such as refugee camps, such orientations may not cover every possible issue. Thus, set expectations for students early, so that they know how often you plan on being online, what your average turnaround time is for grading, and how they can best get ahold of you.

  2. Be responsive. If you do get the opportunity to teach for one of these organizations, it will likely be as a volunteer or with a small stipend. However, this should mean that you are just as responsive and engaged in the class as you would be if you were receiving top payment. If you accepted the position, treat it with the professionalism that you would give your university employer. Have a quick turnaround time for grading. Be active several times a week in the discussions.

  3. Be sensitive with course content. In one of the first courses I taught, the curriculum had not yet been modified for a non-western audience. The discussion in week 1 went something like this: Go to your local Starbucks. Grab a local newspaper, and identify…. Immediately you realize when teaching students in a refugee camp in Kenya and students in Amman, Jordan, as I was, that this prompt is not workable. I also had a student tell me about a course he took that required he create a family tree. He explained how painful that assignment was because he had literally watched as his family members were killed.

  4. Be sensitive with what you have students share about themselves. If you are teaching students inside a refugee camp, you are often teaching students from opposing tribes or sides in a conflict. Inside the camp they are probably not fighting, but tensions can exist just under the surface. The staff at the learning centers where the students may attend classes must work very hard to create a community of learners who can trust and rely on each other. Thus, consider if you are putting students in harm's way by asking them to share a personal reflection with a classmate, or conduct a survey with people in their community they have never met.

  5. Consider the circumstances. Students at the margins have challenges we can't immediately fathom. They may have no electricity at home. They may not have a steady place to call home. They may have illnesses we are not accustomed to our students having, such as malaria or dengue fever. They may have disabilities that we are not aware of, and without the capacity of the learning site to offer the same level of reasonable accommodations that an on-ground university classroom in the United States might offer, students will struggle.

  6. Consider the tech challenges. While our organization ultimately designed courses that met or exceeded the cultural and contextual needs of the learning sites, tech challenges are always a problem. Bandwidth is usually quite poor. Our learning sites downloaded all the course content for every course to a local server thus allowing students to stay offline while viewing videos, images, and reading assigned books and articles. Thus, when you send an announcement asking students to view a great video you've found, you are likely only frustrating the learner, as they may not be able to watch it. Likewise, live engagement via Skype calls may not be possible.

  7. Maintain your standards. I managed faculty at an organization that provided higher education to 10 learning sites globally. Some of the sites were in refugee camps, others were in areas where repatriated refugees lived, others were in camps for internally displaced persons, and still others were available for inner-city youth. The students all had extremely challenging lives. However, they had tremendous capacity. They needed to receive the same quality, high-standards education as their peers in the United States. Faculty members were always exceedingly generous with our students, sometimes wanting to give them lengthy extensions for their work. Without the expanded support and capacity for these students to spend more time at the learning center or without the ability to pause the students' schedules to allow them to finish up a prior class, such extensions often resulted in greater problems.

  8. Don't assume that resettlement is the only option for students. One of the problems that refugee camps consistently confront is 'brain drain' – when the most talented residents are given the opportunity to resettle to a third country, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, the UK, or Germany. Certainly this is a wonderful opportunity for those who receive it, but only 1% of all refugees ultimately resettle. Furthermore, we need to be realistic about how the benefit of education can help those in crisis-affected regions make a difference in those regions. Bringing the refugees themselves into these conversations is critical. Putting them in positions of leadership in educational organizations is essential. They can do tremendous work globally, in their home country (if it is safe for them to repatriate), and in refugee camps or areas that host refugees. Many of the students I met were starting their own non-governmental organizations (NGOs) after having identified a problem within their community and a way to solve it or at least mitigate it. One graduate started SAVIC Africa, an NGO run by refugees that empowers the refugee youth to fulfill their potential and enable them to transform their lives by providing adult education, economic empowerment, and reproductive health services. Another graduate created Salama Africa – an intercultural Youth Center to provide the youth and children of Dzaleka refugee camp (in Malawi) with creative, academic, and social activities and outlets in order to prevent stress or immoral behaviors that could prevent them from developing destructive habits.

What You Can Do Now

Finally, one of the most important things you can do if you are interested in teaching students who are refugees or those at the margins is to engage the leadership at your university. Are they interested in allowing these students to fill out existing vacancies in online classes where the cap has not been met? Are they interested in establishing articulation agreements to bring students who have started their education through the organizations mentioned above into online programs in the United States? Could your university offer just a few scholarships to refugee students to study online?

Imagine if every university in the United States offered just two new scholarships per year - such a movement could offer hope and educational opportunity to over 8,000 new students annually. Imagine how that would compound over 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? Let's start a movement!

Tara Ross




United Nations High Commission for Refugees. (2016). Missing out: Refugee education

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