Passport to the future: The woman helping refugees transform their lives through tech

Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

Today, there are more than 65 million people who have been forced to leave their homes behind because of war and violence.

While some are resettled in new countries, many remain stuck in camps – and, with refugees displaced for an average of 20 years, this means millions of children face huge challenges in accessing quality education

Overcrowded classrooms, and limited, out dated resources can severely limit the opportunities for children to learn effectively.

But Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR’s Instant Network Schools is determined to change that. Their Instant Classroom kits – stocked with tablets, offline educational content, and 3G connectivity – provide a tailor-made digital education to supplement students’ classroom study.

Jacqueline Strecker, a Connected Education lead at UNHCR, the UN Refugee agency, has witnessed firsthand the profound impact such resources have on refugee communities. The Vodafone Foundation is one of UNHCR’s biggest education partners.

What does a typical learning environment for a refugee look like?

Often refugees are welcomed into education systems that are already strained. You can have up to 150 students in a classroom, and the teachers often have very limited resources.

At times, there may be only one textbook to teach from, so the teacher is sat at the front of the classroom relaying information that students are trying to quickly scribble down into their notebook.

Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

How does Vodafone’s Instant Network Schools (INS) work?  

It provides a classroom kit in a storage case. Inside, there are 25 tablets, a laptop, a projector, and a speaker so that the teacher can do demonstrations and display.

An inbuilt charging station, and a hotspot modem with 3G connectivity means if connectivity is down or there’s no power then everything can still run.

How does this equipment enhance learning?

We have accounts of teachers who need to describe the ocean to a group of students who have grown up in a remote location, and have never seen a massive body of water – let alone the sea – before.

Suddenly they’re able to showcase a video of it. It really brings learning to life as students are able to wrestle with concepts that previously they were just told about.

Are there other ways in which technology helps?

In the case of Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, there are 20 different nationalities in the camp.

This means you often have learners from different education systems and different languages in the same class. Digital resources have been helpful in dealing with that, as you can provide them in multiple languages that align to national curriculum.

For a teacher with limited time and a large class, digital assets that provide differentiated learning are really useful.

You might have a student who’s been out of school for three years, and is re-entering into education, which is a different situation from a child that’s transitioning from one grade to another.

That’s a challenge for a teacher, especially when you have over-crowded classrooms. But tailored content allows them to see what a particular student is struggling with, as well as what the entire class is having difficulty with.

These resources also help students because there’s a playback loop that tells them what to do next. If they’re struggling with something it will lead them on to another concept that will help them unpack it a bit further.

Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

Why is it important for refugees to learn digital skills?

People feel disconnected. They lack access to information, and they lack access to opportunities for growth.

Through these programs, we’ve been able to allow for exchanges with leading experts and business leaders. This fosters a sense of connection to the world.

As people develop more digital skills, they’ll say, “We’re no longer being left behind. We’re part of the digital age, and we know how to connect with the world.”

Do you have an example of such skills coming in handy for a refugee student?

I got to meet a girl named Esther, who hadn’t touched a computer or tablet before, but was very eager to access the INS to develop her own skills.

As she went through school, she always talked about how it helped her in preparing for exams.

After Esther got a scholarship to study in Canada, the INS helped her prepare to resettle. It meant she was able to look up the university, she was confident that she knew how to do research online, she was familiar with computers, and she could connect with other students.

She had this toolkit that she’d developed through the program.

Are there other instances in which tech builds bridges between people?

Learning is a very social experience that can create cohesion amongst communities.

We’ve had exchanges with different schools where people will take a class together. They’re able to share common experiences and discuss an issue like climate change.

Not only does this establish a connection, but it allows students to see their similarities around the world.

Picture credit: Sala Lewis / Vodafone

Does technology have limitations?

I think it’s limitations are largely within the application. Often people will just think of one aspect, like establishing computers in an environment without doing sufficient training.

Then you can end up with a centre that’s locked because the community don’t have the means, or they’re worried it’ll be damaged.

What’s a story that you’re inspired by? 

We saw a great initiative from the community within the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

A group got together after a basic coding class, and decided to create an exam preparation app.

They took past exams, coded them, and created an app that allowed people to do practice exams. This was entirely borne by the community and created by the community.

What are the hopes for refugee students once they complete their education?

There are a lot of people who see their passport to a better life through education.

We’ve had numerous people go back to Somalia, and use the skills they’ve been able to develop through these programs.

They’ve started social enterprises, integrated into ministries, and influenced education programs and investments that are being made there.

For those that end up resettling, they have a leg up in their new environment because they’ve got competencies on par with the students there.

Picture credit: Maria Teneva / Unsplash

On World Refugee Day, what do you wish more people knew?

Refugees are by far some of the most inspiring and resilient people you’ll ever meet.

Despite the challenges they face within an education environment, they seize the opportunity and do everything they can as a community to support their students to succeed.

Instant Network Schools in numbers

Instant Network Schools has transformed learning for 86,000 students across eight refugee camps in Sub-Saharan Africa.

INS is active is 36 schools in camps in the DRC, Tanzania, Kenya and South Sudan.

UNESCO found 59 million children aged six to 11 were out of school in 2013, with 30 million of those children living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Girls face the biggest barriers – nine million will never enter a classroom, compared with 6 million boys.

Nyarugusu in Tanzania is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, now housing around 150,000 refugees. Many people have lived in this camp for over two decades.

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