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Protecting the Futures of Refugee Children

Sarah Dryden-Peterson on how governments and education systems around the world can create safe, welcoming spaces for displaced students.
Circle of students

More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion of their country in February 2022. And while the pace and scale of this displacement is shocking, it is also not unique, says Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson, director of Refugee REACH, an initiative focused on creating welcoming communities and quality education in settings of migration and displacement. As she notes, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that almost 7 million Syrians are displaced outside their country; 4 million Venezuelans; 2.6 million Afghans; 2.2 million South Sudanese; 1.1 million Rohingya.  

Education must be a critical part of the world’s response to this displacement, Dryden-Peterson argues, especially since refugees typically wait years or decades before settling into a permanent home. 

We asked Dryden-Peterson — author of the new book Right Where We Belong: How Refugee Teachers and Students Are Changing the Future of Education — about how governments and education systems around the world can help ensure that refugee children can build the futures they deserve.

She outlined three broad steps to guide global response, putting education at the center.

Design and implement welcoming policies 

"The welcoming stance exhibited for Ukrainian refugees should be precedent-setting. The Temporary Protective Directive now enabling Ukrainians access to residence permits and facilitated pathways to asylum in Europe is a radical departure from policies applied to other refugees, including Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans, who too often remain stranded at borders and denied entry.

"Actions by individuals, communities, and educational institutions can also support welcoming stances. Private sponsorship of refugees, less common but being newly reimagined in the United States, has a track record in Canada of both increasing numbers of refugees who are resettled and opening space to create and sustain relationships of solidarity among refugees and long-time residents. College- and university-based pathways to refugee resettlement also hold great promise in creating migration opportunities for refugees, enabling access to their future-building through education, and mobilizing U.S. campuses in service to one of the great collective challenges of our time."

Prioritize refugee education in places where most refugees live

"We need to advocate to our governments the prioritization of needed resources for refugee education in the places where most refugees live. Most refugees – 73% – live in neighboring countries: Syrians in Turkey, South Sudanese in Uganda, Venezuelans in Colombia, and, as we see now, Ukrainians in Poland. The Polish Minister of Education has committed to welcoming Ukrainian refugee students to Polish schools. Yet he also admits that the resources required to do so are staggering, even in a country where access to education is universal. Many refugee hosting-countries similarly commit to including refugees in national schools even when their education systems are already stretched thin, or soon become so. In 2017, for example, 25 percent of the population in Lebanon was a refugee, compared to less than one tenth of 1%  in the U.S. Can you imagine your child’s school growing by one quarter in the span of a few weeks?

"The 2018 Global Compact on Refugees was meant to usher in a new era of “responsibility sharing,” with high-income countries committing to contribute more funding to support refugees in neighboring host countries such as through education. Yet many of these shared commitments continue to go unmet, and are particularly unreliable over the long-term. Education cannot remain the most under-funded humanitarian sector, currently making up only 2.6% of humanitarian aid, and requires increased bilateral and multilateral aid that focuses on long-term investments."

Create welcoming schools

"We must focus attention and resources on the daily work of welcoming children and families. Over time and across contexts, we see that parents, communities, and teachers are first responders, creating schools when refugees are denied access to local schools, creating programs to support language learning, and creating spaces in which refugee children feel safe and a sense of belonging. As countries across Europe begin to welcome Ukrainian students in schools — and as schools in Uganda, Pakistan, Colombia, Lebanon, and so many other places continue this work — we can learn about what has worked in other refugee situations to support students and teachers. 

"We can learn from Syrian students in Lebanon about what they wish their teachers did to support them in their learning, especially to help them find ways to connect their own histories and identities to national narratives that do not include them, to navigate exclusionary power structures in their schools and communities, and to build networks of relationships and belonging. We also have to understand how this kind of work is new for many teachers, who need support to build relationships with their students and families and to help their students develop the skills needed to succeed in a new education systems."

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