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Inaugural IIE PEER Global Forum seeks collaboration on refugees in HE

The first-ever Global Forum for the Institute of International Education’s PEER initiative was held in New York City on April 4 and brought together international educators and facilitators to discuss refugee education in 2019.

One student missed an entrance exam in Damascus due to fighting, and had to wait another 12 months

Organisers of the event, and of the IIE Platform for Education in Emergencies Response, stated the event was designed to “convene leaders in the field to exchange best practice and encourage collaboration”.

“I’d create a Rhodes Scholarship for refugees”

Though the majority of attendees at the Global Forum were representatives of HEIs or NGOs, the star acts were the refugee speakers from Sudan, Syria and Bhutan.

Ekhlas Ahmed, who was forced to flee her native Darfur, Sudan, opened the Forum with an anecdote about the life-changing power of education during her tumultuous youth.

Growing up in the economically, environmentally and politically deprived region, Ahmed said she “never saw the light” that education could offer until she arrived in the US following two years in Egypt.

“I regret that educators did not intervene in my life because I wasted two years of my life being home, and not being able to go to school,” she said.

“Obviously that was due to not having enough documents, but also because the schools in Cairo didn’t reach out enough.”

But that changed when Ahmed and her family was relocated to Portland, Maine, US, and she was able to attend high school, and later earn a degree in Sociology.

“Education made me see that very clearly, [my future is] going to be bright.

The educators that entered my life, the school that I went to, all of them played a role in helping me…see the light. And it helped the people around me [too],” she told The PIE News.

Along with panels discussing the barriers to HE for displaced students, and a plenary from Helena Barroco, general secretary of the Global Platform for Syrian Students, three more refugee speakers told delegates of their experiences in a discussion entitled “For Refugees, By Refugees”.

Lok Darjee, a final year student at BYU-Idaho and founder of Project R, took to the stage with Salim Salamah, now an education consultant with DFID after being forced to leave Syria for Sweden in 2013 where he continued his studies. Salamah also gained an MA from the University of Oxford and was an advisor to former UN Secretary General Moon.

“Community is absolutely key to the ‘sense of normalcy’ refugees need”

On a panel moderated by Belma Sadikovic, herself a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina and now a professor at Minnesota State University (Moorhead), they discussed how institutions can help displaced students feel part of a community.

Salamah pointed out that educators need to “take the university to the camp” rather than vice-versa because only 1% of the refugee community is physically able to benefit from traditional HE outreach – as they remain in camps.

He pointed to the University of Gothenburg program, run with the Jamiya Project, which does just that.

“This is crucial because community is absolutely key to the ‘sense of normalcy’ refugees need to find, when displaced,” he explained.

Flexibility – or the lack of it in HE – was also a key point highlighted by many speakers, including George Batah. As well as a day-to-day position at Deloitte, Batah founded Syrian Youth Empowerment to help high schoolers in Syria and the Middle East access $100m-plus of Ivy League scholarships.

He cited a student who missed an entrance exam in Damascus due to fighting in his town and had to wait another 12 months for another chance.

The event concluded with a ‘fireside chat’ between IIE president Allan Goodman and George Rupp, who has been president of Colombia University, Rice University, and the International Rescue Committee.

Of course, money far from the ‘silver bullet’ to problems refugees encounter with education, but asked what could be an aid, Goodman said $100m would be useful.

“I’d create a Rhodes Scholarship for refugees,” he said, jokingly adding that “obviously we couldn’t call it that.”

“I think you’d get Nobel Prize winners from this… that’s not the point, but they’d also raise up their community [as a beacon of hope],” he concluded.

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