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Why Education is as Important as Food and Shelter

“We are the same as you. We want to have a business, we want to go to schools, just like every other person… it was hard, too, being here. No one would really give you a job with nothing on your résumé, and my dad didn’t speak English then.” – Batool, 21, from Syria

“You can’t really find any other kind of work. If you come here and study here, then maybe you can get another job. But for people like us, there’s no other option.” Brinda, 61, from Nepal

The above statements are from two women who took part in Migrant Voices, a project by The Nation in which refugees living in the United States told their own stories. Throughout the two interviews, the important role that education plays in resettlement comes up again and again. The women link it to better jobs, higher self-esteem, and a wider social circle.

Thanks to her knowledge of English, Batool was able to help her parents set up a popular restaurant in Berkeley, guiding them through the complicated task of business paperwork. As for Brinda, the language barrier has led her to domestic work in New Jersey, despite holding a university degree from Nepal. However, spurred on by the motivation she gets from attending ‘English for Empowerment’ classes at the non-profit organization Adhikaar, she was able to help them successfully campaign for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010.

In recent times, the humanitarian organizations have started to realize that to access education, refugees may need a leg up. A prime example is Columbia University, which recently announced the Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students (CUSDS). This will cover tuition and living expenses for up to 30 displaced students per year, as well as providing housing, mentoring and support. It is the first scholarship of its kind in the entire world, although not the only scholarship to exist. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are currently 40 universities offering various financial support packages to refugee students. Let’s hope that initiatives like these can work towards improving the current prediction that only 1% of the world’s refugees will make it to university, compared to a third of the total worldwide population of university-age individuals.

The CUSDS shows, in the words of the University itself, a “shift [in] the global dialogue… from one that views [displaced persons] as a burden to one that recognizes them as vital contributors to global innovation and prosperity.” This is excellent news. However, initiatives such as these can only help those who are ready for higher education, which means already being computer literate and fluent in English. What about the refugees who don’t already have these skills?

We should not assume that refugees will bring qualifications and education transcripts with them or have a native level of English when they arrive, allowing them to slide effortlessly into a job or a university. If they have not prepared for their new lives in this way, it is because they never planned to leave their old ones in the first place. In any case, there is no guarantee that foreign qualifications will be recognized in the host country.

What is more, many of today’s refugees are moving to countries that are heavily reliant on technology in all spheres of life. An unfamiliarity with computers can, therefore, make the resettlement process unnecessarily complicated and inaccessible, as well as greatly restricting job accessibility, since the technological skills which are practically assumed by many employers in the United States may not be reflected on these individuals’ resumes.

So, what is it about computer literacy and English skills in particular that makes them so vital to the resettlement process?

Firstly, computer literacy…

· is an employable skill. Word processing, sending emails and navigating search engines are skills expected from employers in all sectors.

· means being able to contact employers via the internet, meaning more employers can be contacted in a shorter space of time, increasing the chances of finding a suitable job.

· enables you to write and update your resume, giving a better impression to employers.

· makes it easy to learn about the local area, by searching for community groups, hobbies and further education opportunities online.

· gives access to important information including help sites for refugees such as or

Secondly, learning English…

· encourages community cohesion. It allows refugees to connect with residents outside of their native-language community, combatting isolation and allowing both parties to connect with and learn from each other.

· leads to independence, eliminating the need for an interpreter or translator to be present for tasks such as booking appointments and filling out forms.

· is healthy. Knowing the local language makes it easy to engage with society without making life a daunting communication test. Meaningful engagements with the community will have a positive effect on morale and mental health, encouraging even more meaningful engagements. The positive cycle continues.

In an ideal world where asylum applications are processed instantaneously and refugees can cross borders without so much as a thought, those needing computer or English classes could begin once they have reached their final destination. However, reality paints a different picture, and it is all too common to hear of refugees spending months in a state of limbo at the border because of asylum processing backlogs. This July, at the Tijuana-San Diego border, the wait time soared to 7-9 months for those joining the asylum processing queue. Each day, only 3 people on average were being called for asylum processing. While they wait, refugees receive no monthly stipend from UNHCR as refugees arriving in Greece do.

Most non-profits that have sprouted up in Tijuana have focused on meeting the immediate needs present at the border itself, providing shelter (e.g. Casa del Migrante), medical care (e.g. Refugee Heath Alliance), or legal assistance (e.g. Al Otro Lado). As necessary as emergency aid is, it alone cannot fill up the endless hours of waiting for asylum processing. And whatever benefit it has is left behind once a refugee finally gets to cross the border.

So, why not provide education at the border as well?

Alongside emergency aid, there is every reason to add education to the list of services available at the border. It’s something that the Yes We Can World Foundation is already providing to children at Tijuana - but it needs to be available for adult refugees too. Education is a vital element of the long-term solution, giving a head start to the resettlement process. Not to mention the welcome distraction it would provide: hours spent pondering over asylum processing and the events of the past which have led someone to seek asylum are a breeding ground for poor mental health.

At One Digital World, we believe in facilitating refugee access to education as a path to opening opportunities for employment and encouraging community involvement. And it can start at the border.

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