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Bridging a Gap in Education Support for Refugees

LONDON—Refugee Support Network, a London-based organization that helps young refugees get access to education, has grown from a handful of volunteer mentors into an operation that will soon support the educational aspirations of 500 young people around the United Kingdom.

The network has a staff of 15 and, in addition to its educational mission, has an ancillary business providing research and analysis to big international aid agencies.

Its staff combine experience of working with refugees in the U.K. with experience gained abroad with international organizations. “They are able to match what they do here [in the U.K.] with a deep understanding of the situations in the places the young people are coming from,” said Carolina Albuerne Rodriguez of the organization Refugee Action, which is the largest provider of resettlement support for refugees in the U.K., and has collaborated with Refugee Support Network in skills training.

In its comparatively brief existence, Refugee Support Network has grown in response to increasing demand for its services, while “keeping that growth at a manageable pace,” Albuerne said.

Refugee Support Network began in 2009 as a project of Community Church Harlesden, a small independent Christian group in Harlesden, an economically modest, ethnically mixed neighborhood in northwest London. Part of the international Salt & Light community of activist, charismatic Christians, the church has about 30 members who meet in each others’ homes and are committed to serving the needs of their neighbors in this part of London.

Catherine Gladwell is the project’s founder and director. Before starting what became the Refugee Support Network, Gladwell worked in education policy for the charity Save the Children, helping deliver education to children in areas affected by armed conflict and other emergencies. She worked in 17 different countries, including Haiti, South Sudan and Jordan.

The idea of offering educational mentoring to young refugees in her own neighborhood came to Gladwell when she began studying for a master’s degree in education in international development at the Institute of Education at University College, London.

“I realized that although I had been working on these issues from an international point of view at Save the Children, actually there were a lot of refugee young people here in Harlesden,” said Gladwell.

The Community Church Harlesden offered her seed money to start the program, which began by offering help to 10 vulnerable students at a local technical and vocational college. Within two years, demand for mentoring increased as word of the program spread. Schools, social service agencies and refugee youths began to ask for the volunteer mentors’ help. As the project grew, it took office space in the upper floor of a Salvation Army building near the neighborhood’s main shopping street.

A mentoring session with refugee students in London (Photo: Refugee Support Network).

The organization’s work now includes personalized educational advice and guidance, for students with more complex needs, and a program to train teaching staff in supporting refugee students.

Also, it has been able to draw on its own staff members’ experience in international development, expertise and education to establish a second tier of work: preparing reports for international aid organizations that want data on a specific subject, in collaboration with the research consultants Jigsaw Consult. The income the network receives from this subsidizes its work with refugees.

The network’s clients for research work include UNICEF and the United Nations refugee agency, and aid groups like Save the Children and War Child.

“One of the things we are passionate about when it comes to research is helping to bridge the gap between what is happening in the international sector on access to education for refugees and what is happening in the U.K.,” Gladwell said. “There is surprisingly little crossover. There are people working directly with refugee children here in the U.K. who have never worked in the countries the refugees come from.”

In April 2016, Refugee Support Network published a report on what happened to young Afghan refugees who had been admitted to the United Kingdom on a temporary basis because they were legal minors, but were later compelled to return to Afghanistan when they reached the age of 18—a subject on which the British government until then had shown little interest.

“There was no monitoring of what was happening to these young people once they were back in Afghanistan,” said Emily Bowerman, manager of higher-education programs at Refugee Support Network and one of the report’s authors.

The network engaged a local researcher in Afghanistan to contact 50 young people who had been returned to the country after expulsion from the United Kingdom. “We tracked what happened to them over a period of two years in terms of their progress in education and their psycho-social well-being,” Bowerman said. The report showed that the young people faced considerable difficulty in readjusting to life in Afghanistan, and in re-integrating into their families and communities.

The report cites case studies that illustrate the difficulties young Afghan returnees face. One 21-year-old tells of being enlisted by the Taliban after he was found sleeping in the streets. The Taliban promised to protect him and give him food and shelter. “I had to join the Taliban […] to survive,” he said.

Another shows how absence from the country breaks social links of patronage that can be essential in getting work. “I need a job,” another young man says, “but when I have applied for jobs they do not accept me. They say to me, ‘We don’t know you.’ […] There is no one to speak for me. […] Also, they say to me that I need a bachelor’s degree and some sort of bribe or connection.”

“One measure of the report’s success is that it has been used in appeal hearings in the U.K., providing information about what’s likely to happen to a person if they get sent back to their country of origin,” Bowerman said.

Although it has grown since it began eight years ago, Refugee Support Network maintains a “small is beautiful” ethos. “As an aid organization, you are under pressure to get people through your program,” Catherine Gladwell said. “The danger there is looking only at numbers. The biggest difference our work makes is when we are able to treat people as individuals, not as statistics.”


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