Give refugee children an education and watch them shine

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Six-year-old Syrian refugee, Sondes Younes, takes part in an interactive theatre activity run by UNHCR partner, the Arab Institute for Human Rights (IADH), with Tunisian and other refugee children from the Dar Saïda neighbourhood of Tunis. ; Once a month, the IADH organises activities for children aged between six and 15. The games and theatre workshops help the children meet, get to know each other and accept diversity in their community. Tunisia pursues an open-door policy for those fleeing neighbouring countries in fear of violence and persecution. Refugees and asylum-seekers can access public health services and education, with UNHCR’s support, as well as child protection social services – although resources are a constraint. New arrivals to in Tunisia happen in the context of mixed population movements from neighbouring countries and from sub-Saharan Africa through regular and irregular entry points by air, land, sea or via sea rescues and interceptions. Half of the 3,000 refugees and asylum-seekers currently hosted in Tunisia come from Syria.

Give refugee children the future they deserve

One of the major surprises of this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo was the victory of Iranian refugee Kimia Alizadeh over two-time gold medalist and British champion Jade Jones in Taekwondo.

Alizadeh narrowly missed out on a win in the subsequent bronze medal bout but her stellar performance highlighted the talent of refugees that is at times untapped.

The Refugee Olympic team has brought the refugee crisis back into the spotlight and rightly so. According to Amnesty International, there are currently 26 million refugees globally – 7.1 million of who are school-aged children.

The needs of refugee children can be incredibly complex as a result of their experiences in crises and conflict-affected countries. New research from Global TIES for Children, an international research centre, based at NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi, conducted in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), has found that an educational approach that combines tutoring with social-emotional learning support helps refugee children and has positive affects on their learning outcomes.

The initiative, titled “Education in Emergencies: Evidence for Action (3EA)”, which received start-up funding from the global philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares, looked at the impact of providing complementary education programmes to refugee, internally-displaced, and/or host country children enrolled in public schools in Lebanon, Niger and Sierra Leone. The research is meant to help fill critical gaps and build evidence about interventions that can help these children thrive in a classroom environment.

While tutoring and social-emotional learning are some approaches to education that are used widely in stable countries, their outcomes are inadequately researched at the moment in conflict and crisis-affected countries.

In Lebanon and Niger, researchers from NYU TIES conducted a series of randomised field experiments over a two-year period and the results were heartening.

In Lebanon, there are nearly 500,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children. Those children who received half an academic year of tutoring showed marked improvements; they became better at being able to regulate their behaviour and had more positive perceptions of their school, compared to students who only had access to public school.

In Niger, deprived of an education, more than half of boys and 70 per cent of girls are illiterate. But those who had access to a full academic year of tutoring – refugee, internally displaced and host-country children – showed improved literacy and numeracy skills compared to students without such access.

Interestingly, when activities such as mindfulness and breathing – aimed at decreasing children’s stress – were included, children in both countries improved in reading and math, in addition to showing better social and emotional behaviours. Activities focused on stress and emotion management and regulation were designed to be implemented during transition break times between academic subject lessons.

The Olympic games have highlighted the immense sporting talent within the refugee community. In many ways, our world has progressed as a result of the diverse and impressive contributions of refugees – Albert Einstein being perhaps the most famous refugee of all time.

But it is crucial to help and provide the right opportunities to refugee children and intervene at the right time in their development.

As the fourth UN Sustainable Goal states, every child has the right to an education. And no child should ever be prevented from receiving the support they need to flourish as adults. A strong educational foundation is the basis for this. Just last month, the UAE pledged Dh367 million for the education of girls in developing countries.

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The world could have 7.1 million more educated minds with the potential to make untold contributions to our society

There is no doubt that a quality education helps refugee children build a better future. The necessary support and educational infrastructure can alter their lives. The right programmes can empower them in multiple ways. By extension, the world would have 7.1 million more educated minds with the potential to make untold contributions to our society.

The results of “Education in Emergencies: Evidence for Action” demonstrate the importance of continually investing in education research so that we can learn how to maximise learning outcomes in children that have been affected by crisis and conflict.

The next Olympic gold medalist, or even a Nobel-prize winning scientist, may be amongst these children.

It is our responsibility as a global community to do everything to ensure that refugee children are given the tools and support that they need to pursue the futures they deserve.

These promising findings should be a call to action to governments and donors around the world to invest in evidence-based programmes to not only support refugee children academically, but also provide the emotional and social support they need to thrive.

Published: August 5th 2021, 9:00 AM
Updated: August 8th 2021, 8:25 AM
J Lawrence Aber

J Lawrence Aber

J Lawrence Aber is the Willner Family Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at NYU Steinhardt, University Professor at NYU and co-director at Global TIES for Children NYU/NYUAD