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A Liberals Arts Approach to the Refugee Education Challenge

ERBIL—For the past three years, Jesuit Worldwide Learning, a nonprofit organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, has been running a program to offer a liberal arts education to refugees in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The first eight students—a mixture of displaced Syrians and Iraqis—are set to graduate this year and they hope to use the skills they’ve acquired to help other refugees in the region.

“This program gave me the chance to study again after ISIS came to my village,” says Nagham Dawood, who fled the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq for Erbil, the region’s capital, when the terrorists came. “It has built my self-confidence and other skills that I would now like to use to benefit other refugees.”

The online program currently enrolls a total of 49 students who study on the brand-new campus of the Catholic University of Erbil or in refugee camps in Duhok. There are also 31 refugees in Amman enrolled in the program.

The diplomas the students are working toward are issued by one of Jesuit Worldwide Learning’s university partners, Regis University, a Jesuit institution in Denver, Colorado, and they come with official transcripts and records exactly as they would for students who complete their studies on-campus in the United States.

The diplomas are not bachelor’s degrees—students earn them after acquiring 45 credits. But after completing a diploma, students have the option to continue studying at an international university and apply those credits toward a full bachelor’s degree.

Currently, two refugees in Amman have already progressed from the diploma program into further study for a full degree.

While the program faces challenges—a big one is the distrust in many Arab nations of online courses provided by foreign institutions—international education officials are hopeful that the program’s liberal arts approach can help refugees resume interrupted educations and put them on a path toward meaningful careers.

Students in Khanke refugee camp near Duhok in Iraq use tablet computers in their work towards a diploma. (Photo:Jesuit Worldwide Learning)

A Mixture of Faiths

The students in the Erbil program come from different backgrounds. Muslims, Christians and Yazidis study alongside each other. This means the program has an oversized influence for its relatively modest size, says Peter Balleis, executive president of Jesuit Worldwide Learning.

“It’s by intention that we have a mixture of religions learning together because that will help to build a future in which we can all live together in peace,” he says. “This program is looking to create leaders and when our students go out into the world, they will take that message with them.”

This inclusive approach, says Balleis, is also helpful for Christian minorities in the Middle East who could be at risk of persecution. “It helps non-Christians to see Christians as a positive part of their community and it makes living in peace more possible.”

In the decade since Jesuit Worldwide Learning was founded, the charity has provided educational opportunities to more than 5,000 refugees and marginalized people—and at least half of these students are women.

The liberal arts diploma is currently on offer in Iraq, Jordan, Kenya and Malawi, but that isn’t the full extent of the organization’s efforts. The charity also runs professional certificate programs, which are offered in the same locations and additionally in Afghanistan and Chad. The certificate programs cover subjects such as community health, counseling and English as a foreign language.

“We are working in the margins with people in some of the poorest parts of the world,” says Balleis. “It’s about helping people who have a desire to learn and informing them to be responsible citizens, not just to learn facts.”

Focus on Critical Thinking

Like most liberal arts programs, the diploma offered through Regis University covers everything from politics and history to the ethics of science, but with a strong focus on communication and critical thinking. The students are asked to form opinions about these subjects, and to demonstrate and justify their assertions with evidence and logical arguments. In doing this, the students in Erbil say their opinions often evolve or change.

Just 1 percent of young refugees have access to university level education, according to Maren Kroeger, the senior officer for higher education at UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

The online component of the diploma program provides the participants with much needed flexibility, says Kroeger. “Jesuit Worldwide Learning’s model means that students can work to their own schedule, and that’s important as many refugees have other responsibilities such as young families or jobs.”

“I met the first cohort in Iraq and I was really impressed,” says Kroeger. “They told me that it’s so important that they are learning how to ask critical questions because they didn’t have the opportunity to learn like that back in Syria.”

A group of refugees studying for a liberal arts degree in Erbil say they want to use their skills to help other refugees (Photo: Benjamin Plackett).

A liberal arts education with that kind of an approach produces a well-rounded individual with the ability to act on their own initiative, argues Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, a professor and director of the common core curriculum at the University of Hong Kong.

“Dialogue is much more important than the opinion itself,” says Kochhar-Lindgren, who has contributed to a book about the global spread of liberal arts programs beyond the United States. “It’s about explaining and backing up opinions.”

The curriculum for the liberal arts diploma is delivered online by professors at Regis University in Colorado with support from online learning resources at Georgetown University, in Washington.

But even though all the teaching is done remotely, the students in Erbil get together in person on a regular basis to work on their assignments and group activities. A support staff is on hand in Erbil, and its members also travel to the refugee camps near Duhok when needed.

In Erbil, the students use computers and classrooms at the Catholic University, while in Jordan the students are loaned tablet computers.

Problems at the National Level

While Jesuit Worldwide Learning’s program may offer refugees the opportunity of higher education, it does come with a significant caveat: The Iraqi and Jordanian governments do not recognize online degrees. “That’s government policy, but it’s a big challenge,” confesses Balleis.

That means the graduates won’t be permitted to continue their studies at an Iraqi or Jordanian university, nor will they be eligible for government jobs. They will, however, be able to study at an international university just as any other graduate of Regis University would.

“Jesuit Worldwide Learning is aware of this problem and trying to address it,” says Kroeger. “It requires in depth negotiations with the ministry to allow recognition of these qualifications at a national level.”

But the program still has worth, says her colleague Charley Wright, a connected learning expert at UNHCR.

“JWL has a strong program,” he says. “It brings with it an accreditation from an international university and that has value.”

Despite the issues with national-level recognition, Balleis believes the program still gives its graduates a leg up in the job market. “In the private sector, these skills and qualifications from an American university will be recognized and valued.”

For their part, the students say the program has been worth the effort.

“Before this course I couldn’t explain or articulate myself, but now that has changed,” says Noor Ishaqi, one of the students who arrived in Erbil in 2014 from the Nineveh Plains region. She is expecting to graduate this year. “I want to work to help people who have suffered a lot, mainly other displaced people.”

Kochhar-Lindgren agrees that the students will be well placed to compete for fulfilling careers. “There’s a strong argument to be made for liberal arts as a training to jump starting a career. Partially because liberal arts students show some willingness to take initiative and tackle different subjects,” he says. “That they want to work with other refugees is fantastic. There’s a lot they can offer nongovernmental organizations in the region.”

That’s certainly the hope of the students who are about to graduate. “These skills will help us to improve society, and maybe NGOs and charities will be able to employ more local people like us,” says Ishaqi.


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