Module 4: Children and Education in Refugee Camps

Education is a basic human right for all children, and it is especially important that refugee children receive schooling because it creates a sense of security and hope, which is often lacking in refugee settings. “After times of conflict, educational activities play a very important role in helping to reintroduce a sense of normalcy and routine into the lives of children and adolescents.”(1) Educating refugees has multiple benefits and an immediate, positive, and widespread impact on society. Education teaches self-reliance, helps create the human social capital needed for development, and plays a fundamental role in providing both physical and psychosocial protection for the child. Education is also critical for refugee children so that they can be informed about health and hygiene. (2)

In general, refugees value education and view it as an important tool for ensuring future success. For Congolese refugees, “formal education was considered by nearly all boys and girls and their parents to be an essential ingredient in the plan to make a better life.”(3) Similarly, for refugees at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, “education in the camp was highly regarded… as a helpful solution for their personal problems.”(4) Though children and parents both realize the importance of education, many refugee children, especially girls, are unable to attend school; many have lost parents and need to help care for their younger siblings or prepare meals for their families.(5) For those who do receive schooling, the quality is often extremely low. For example, the Congolese refugee children that did go to school in Tanzania “expressed great disappointment and disdain… in addition to the poor infrastructure and the lack of books, chalk and other learning resources, most were dismayed by the quality of teaching they received.”(6) In addition to the lack of resources available to refugee schools, teachers are often people who have never taught before arriving at the camp and can be abusive and disempowering.(7) Those who attend school often face upheaval as children and teachers alike join and leave the school due to repatriation or new influxes of refugees, making an educational experience unstable. For example, at Meheba Refugee Settlement, many Congolese students have been transferred from other refugee camps where French was the primary language to speak and teach in. Upon arriving in Meheba, many of these children have to repeat years, taking the same classes over and over again because they cannot pass them in English, but have already taken them in French. This instability and repetition furthers hardship for refugee students.(8)

Improving Education in Refugee Settings

Case Study #1: Sakena Yacoobi

Though girls are prohibited from going to school in certain countries, Sakena Yacoobi proved that this does not have to be the case. Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan Muslim, saw the need to educate refugee girls. She realized that achieving this goal would be much more effective and less controversial if promoted by an Afghan Muslim, like herself, rather than a westerner. Thus, she created the Afghan Institute of Learning and began opening girls' schools in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, even though the Taliban barred girls from getting an education. She educated 3,800 girls in underground schools, and as she explained “we had rules that the students would arrive at intervals, no men were allowed inside, and people would work as lookouts.”(9) The operation was extremely successful and protected over 80 secret girls' schools during the Taliban’s reign. Sakena also opened a university for women, as well as adult literacy classes for Afghan refugees. Her institute now provides education to over 350,000 women and children in Afghanistan.(10)

Case Study #2: Voices Beyond Walls

Realizing the importance of youth empowerment and expression, the nonprofit media initiative called Voices Beyond Walls supports creative expression among Palestinian youth in refugee camps. The organization conducts 10-day workshops in refugee camps to produce short videos, which draw upon the youth’s individual stories. The main goal of the organization is to create awareness around issues experienced by youth in refugee camps by giving them a voice.(11)

Case Study #3: UNICEF School-in-a-Box

UNICEF operates hubs in Dubai, Panama and China, where school supplies and other emergency materials can be dispatched within 48 hours. UNICEF’s School-in-a-Box contains supplies for a teacher and up to 80 students. Originally designed for refugees following the Rwanda crisis of 1994, the School-in-a-Box kit has educated millions of children and refugees worldwide.(12)

Case Study #4: The Book Bus, Zambia

The Book Bus operates as an NGO in Zambia’s Meheba Refugee Settlement, working and living within Meheba for two months every year to promote literacy by visiting each school in the camp on every day of the week. The volunteers promote literacy through reading aloud and planning lessons that focus on creative expression and artwork as a means to literary comprehension.(13)

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(1) Bruijn, B. “Human Development Research Paper 2009/25. The Living Conditions and Well-being of Refugees.” United Nations Development Programme. (2009).

(2) Ibid.

(3) Mann, G. “Finding a Life Among Undocumented Congolese Refugee Children in Tanzania.” Children & Society. 24.4 (2010); 261-270.

(4) Mareng, C. “Analysis of the refugee children’s education in the Kakuma refugee camp.” Educational Research and Reviews. 5.6 (2010): 292-287.

(5) Kirk, J. and Winthrop, R. “Promoting Quality Education in Refugee Contexts: Supporting Teacher Development in Northern Ethiopia.” International Review of Education. 53. (2007): 715-723.

(6) Mann, G. “Finding a Life Among Undocumented Congolese Refugee Children in Tanzania.” Children & Society. 24.4 (2010); 261-270.

(7) Kirk, J. and Winthrop, R. “Promoting Quality Education in Refugee Contexts: Supporting Teacher Development in Northern Ethiopia.” International Review of Education. 53. (2007): 715-723.

(8) From Mwange…The Journal of a FORGE Project Manager. 26 March 2008.

(9) Kristof, N. and WuDunn, S. “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” (New York: Random House, 2009), 163.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Sawhney, N. “Voices Beyond Walls: the Role of Digital Storytelling for Empowering Marginalized Youth in Refugee Camps.” In Interaction Design and Children: Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children. (New York: ACM, 2009).

(12) UNHCR (2014) United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) 2014 United Nations: (2010) The virtual curriculum Binder (UNICEF).

(13) The Book Bus, Registered Charity No: 1117357.