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The Wisdom of Oz

Bringing together education leaders from around the world to discuss the impact of globalization, innovation, and technology on the field of education, the fourth annual Goldman Sachs–Harvard University Global Education Conference was held in Cambridge this week. Many among the HGSE community participated in the event, including Assistant Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson, who delivered the following address on the importance of educating refugee children.

Annette was a young girl of 10 when I met her in a refugee camp in southwest Uganda. She had recently fled war in Democratic of Congo. Surrounded by on-going fighting in the camp, with not enough to eat, her family torn apart, she retained a bright smile. I soon understood why. “Education will lead me to my dreams for the future,” she told me. Every day, she put on her bright pink uniform and went to school.

A quality education for Annette matters, immensely — not only for her dreams for the future, but for the future economic, political, and social stability of her community, her country, and for you and I — in our increasingly interconnected world.

But is a high quality education possible for all children in conflict settings?

Today, I want to tell you five facts that demonstrate just how important it is that our answer to this question is yes. And I want to tell you two stories that illustrate how I think we as a global community can meet this challenge.

Fact One. 30,000 people fled their homes every day in 2014 as a result of conflict. Can you imagine? There were more refugees globally in 2014 than ever before in recorded history.

Fact Two. 86 percent of refugees live in a neighboring country, usually a country that itself struggles to provide services, like education, for its citizens.

Fact Three. Most refugees will live in exile for a long, long time. The average length of exile is 17 years. That’s the equivalent of a child’s whole shot at education, from birth to high school graduation.  

Fact Four. Refugees sometimes find sanctuary, but they seldom find acceptance. From communities in Massachusetts closing their doors to new arrivals to schools in Egypt where Syrian children are physically bullied and called names. Refugees get the message: “You are not welcome here.”

Fact Five. Children in conflict settings account for more than half of the world’s out-of-school children. Unlike Annette, most don’t go to school.

We have a massive challenge on our hands. What can we do about it?

I say, we need the Wisdom of Oz. For education to be a hope for the future for Annette and hundreds of millions of children like her, we need our brains, as the Scarecrow knows, we need our hearts, as the Tin Man knows, and we need a Lion’s courage.

In my brain, I think about how distant education has become from children and communities. Of course individual teachers continue to build strong relationships with children in Boston, Beirut, and Bujumbura. But they have little control over what and how their students learn. It is a question of power. Bit by bit, those who work on refugee education have left the places where refugees live. They are in Geneva, New York, London. The thrust of refugee education? Policies, guidelines, and strategies. The goal? Centralize, standardize, and that magic five letter word, SCALE.

I am not saying we do not need policies, guidelines, or strategies. And do I wish for scale, meaning that every refugee child globally would have access to a high quality education? Absolutely.

But a high-quality education and the means to get there does not look the same in Boston as it does in Beirut as it does in Bujumbura. Scale as universal and same is a trap.

Now enter the Tin Man and two people who live in my heart to combat this trap.

First, Jacques. I met Jacques in 2002. At first, I knew him only as “the refugee teacher.” He fled acute conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo and found refuge in the capital of Uganda, Kampala. In Kampala he found thousands of refugee children who were not permitted to go to school. Refugees were only allowed to live in camps in Uganda — refugee camps, this elegant, simple solution for the international community to provide aid at scale. Imagine that you, like Jacques, had never farmed in your life, that you were trying to escape the interethnic conflict that had torn your family apart, that you were seeking opportunities for your children. Would you go to a few square miles of barren land with hundreds of thousands of other people fleeing conflict and wait to see what might be provided for you? I wouldn’t. Jacques stayed in Kampala and created a school for refugee children, he spoke to them in their home languages, he made them feel welcome, he built relationships with them. But, in the refugee camp, Annette didn’t understand the language her teachers spoke, she was called names. And ultimately, she took off that bright pink school uniform and lay down the idea that education would lead her to her dreams. At Jacques’ small school in Kampala, there was no bullying and kids stayed in school.

Now meet Mohammed who reminds me that local relationships are still the key to living globally. Born in Somalia, Mohammed grew up and went to school in Dadaab, Kenya — the largest refugee camp in the world. He now lives in Toronto, where he is studying for a bachelor’s degree. Through Facebook, he gives high school students in Dadaab feedback on their essays. Via text messages, he gets advice from uncles about what university courses will help him do what he most wants to do: rebuild the water infrastructure of Somalia. Mohammed’s education — in Somalia, Kenya, and Canada, are parts of a whole for him, connected not through a universal curriculum and global institutions but through people and places he cares deeply about.

When we think about scale, let’s us not think not only in terms of policies and widely implementable programs, let us think about people.

This requires the Lion’s courage to connect the scale of our brains to the people in our hearts. We must let the local, contextualized experiences of children and teachers guide us. People like Annette, Jacques, and Mohammed — let them be our Yellow Brick Road.


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