For refugees, education is as essential as shelter: just ask Aqeela Asifi, Like millions around the world, I have been moved by the public outcry and spontaneous acts of solidarity towards refugees in Europe. I have been overwhelmed by the support for the efforts of the UNHCR – the UN refugee agency – which has delivered tents, blankets, food and other essential items that refugee families so desperately need in this emergency.
But what next? What happens when the dramatic images fade from our TV screens? They must not fade as well from our collective consciousness. As incredibly trying as this initial emergency has been for all involved parties, this is when the hard work truly begins.
The average length of time a refugee lives in exile is over 15 years, be it in a camp in Jordan or Uganda, an informal settlement in Lebanon or Thailand, or resettled in the US or Europe. That is a long time, and thus the difficult work ahead lies in making sure the refugees remain contributing, productive members of society. The hard work lies in ensuring that people have access to education and vocational skills training, because this is in the best interests of everyone – the host country, the refugee, and the home to which they eventually hope to return.
Far too often, refugees are viewed as burdens. It is well known that Albert Einstein was a refugee, as was Marlene Dietrich, and Madeleine Albright, George Soros, Sigmund Freud and Isabel Allende, to name just a few. But there are millions of other names, less celebrated but no less heroic refugees, working quietly, anonymously, often under difficult and dangerous circumstances. Aqeela Asifi is one such name.
In 1992, at the age of 26, Asifi fled the mujahideen siege of Kabul with her husband and two small children, and arrived in the remote Kot Chandana refugee village in Pakistan. When she first fled Afghanistan she thought it would be a matter of months before she was home once more.
But she soon realised what all refugees know: in the midst of the noise and chaos and trauma of fleeing your country, your focus is on the immediate. You want to protect your children and seek sanctuary. You want to simply survive. It takes time to process fully that going home any time soon is an improbable dream; that your life has been reset at zero; that you have to build it back up from nothing. When this acceptance does eventually set in, a shift happens, from survival to resilience, and with it a determination to be strong, move forward, and create anew.
Asifi’s children had had their education interrupted by war and displacement. As a former teacher she could not watch them languish in a state of arrested development. She was struck by the lack of schools in Kot Chandana and the total absence of learning opportunities for girls. Having won the backing of the village elders, Asifi went door to door, convincing reluctant parents to let her tutor their girls. With 20 pupils, a tent, handwritten worksheets and, above all, fierce determination, she started a school.
Asifi’s tiny school blossomed and she received funding from the Pakistani government. Asifi expanded the school to six tents and began including local Pakistani girls as well. Today, the school is a permanent building. Asifi has transformed the lives of more than a thousand girls, and her efforts have encouraged another six schools to open, with a further 1,500 girls and boys enrolled. Education, instead of anchoring refugees in Pakistan , has been a mobilising factor for people returning to Afghanistan
As a writer I believe more in the power of words than numbers. But there are numbers scrawled in the margin of Asifi’s tale that we should not ignore. It is well known that educated Afghans are three times more likely to repatriate than stay in their country of refuge. Education, instead of anchoring refugees in Pakistan, has been a mobilising factor for people returning to Afghanistan. Education helps protect refugee children from illiteracy, abuse, exploitation via child labour, forced early marriage, or recruitment to armed groups. Education offers refugees a pathway out of poverty and gives them the skills to build themselves and their country a stable, secure and prosperous future when they return home.
Globally, over 50% of refugees are children. Yet only one in every two refugee children attend primary school. Only one in four refugee adolescents receive secondary school education. I hope, when the media spotlight inevitably moves away from the current crisis in Europe, that public goodwill towards refugees across the world remains strong, that we remember that refugees need more than just emergency support.
Above all, we must remember that, in our increasingly interconnected world, an investment in their future is an investment in ours too.