Education is crucial in tempering displacement

Greg Mills
Australia for UNHCR

Afghan refugee Samina is benefiting from education being offered to girls in a refugee village in Pakistan

When Muzon’s family were forced to leave Syria, they briefly considered leaving her behind to continue her schooling, knowing how vital her education was.

The bright 14-year-old had been studying very hard for her Year 9 exams, which were only a month away, and her aunt urged the family to let her stay to complete them.

The family’s home was, however, close to a military base that regularly came under attack, leaving them trapped in the crossfire. Her father had no option but to take her out of school and flee with the family across the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Explaining the life-and-death decision he had to make, her father, Abu Mohammed, said: “I hoped that Muzon could make up for her lost schooling, but if you lose your life there’s no way to make up for that.”

From here in Australia, the global refugee crisis can feel insurmountable. But just as Australian teachers are exploring this issue in classroom discussions, Australia for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency’s national partner in Australia) is engaging civil society to support UNHCR’s vital humanitarian work.

More than half of all refugees worldwide are children, so education is a key pillar of the work that Australia for UNHCR funds, according to Naomi Steer, Australia for UNHCR’s National Director. Naomi is the former NSW Secretary of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. She set up Australia for UNHCR 16 years ago and has witnessed first-hand the power that education has to transform refugees’ lives.

“The shocking reality is that most refugees will spend an average of 20 years displaced," she said.

"Education is a key priority for UNHCR to ensure those years are not wasted and that children like Muzon can finish their schooling. Education is important for its own sake, but for conflict-traumatised children it also restores a sense of stability and normalcy.

"In the longer term, it provides them with the skills and knowledge to contribute to their adopted countries or to help rebuild their homelands,” explains Naomi.

UNHCR’s Australian supporters have helped fund schools across the world — in refugee camps, in host communities and in places like Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda, which is home to more than 100,000 refugees. Until Australia for UNHCR stepped in, there was no secondary school for the thousands of children who live there. Opening its doors in 2012 to 145 students, the school now enrols 1000 students annually.

One of the first graduates, "Muzzi", a young refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is now studying engineering in the USA. He sent Naomi an email updating her on his progress.

“Muzzi asked if I was the tall, blonde woman who used to come to the camp. He then asked me to thank Australians for building the high school, without which he might never have made it to further study.”

Many of the teachers are refugees themselves. In some cases, the only education they have ever received is what has been provided through UNHCR, which provides salaries, training and accommodation in remote camps.

With millions of displaced children still awaiting resettlement or longer-term solutions, the need to help their teachers keep classes running has never been greater.

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