How are young people educated in refugee camps? Are there standards, and are they being met?

From Mozambican camps in Malawi to those for Cambodians in Thailand, few refugee camps have well-developed education systems for the many minors who live there. In most cases, their schooling, as well as their livelihood, has been uprooted and cut short, with little hope of recompense in their future refugee dwellings.

This was the case for a young Thida Tim Loek. At six years old, she and her family were forced to flee their home and hide out in the Cambodian wilderness from brutal Khmer Rouge soldiers. For the next several years, Loek would see her parents starve and watch every one of her siblings die before learning the first letters of the Cambodian alphabet. By the time she reached the Khao’i’Dang refugee area in Thailand at the age of 11, she had no formal education of any kind. There, she began learning at the most rudimentary levels.

‘’[At Khao ‘i’ Dang], I was learning in the Cambodian language, of course, but very basic mathematics and other things…it wasn’t even a whole day that we were in school, and really they didn’t divide the subjects, maybe just math and reading.’’

Loek also recalls that the school assigned no real homework nor did they give any comprehensive exams. The system functioned as a kind of free for all learning. Loek’s half-day classes at Khao ‘i’ Dang were not required.

‘’My parents made me go because they couldn’t have me running around all day, but it was really kind of just free learning. We all sat at long wood table to do our work, color these things,’’ Loek said. ‘’In the classroom, we were split kind of by age, older kids slightly more advanced, but not really that much.’’

In many cases, international aid organizations step in to help develop structured school curricula, train teachers, and provide school materials in camps like Khao ‘i’ Dang where these are all lacking. The United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other non-profit organizations like World Vision, South African Extension Unit (SAEU), and Relief Development Society (REDESO) often collaborate to provide such financial and technical support to education services in refugee camps where they are lacking. In rare instances, UN efforts and work by service agencies have given some refugees the opportunity to access higher forms of education never thought possible. In one particularly interesting example, aid workers in a Kenyan camp connected a promising young Somali refugee with the American school system where he eventually applied to and attended Princeton University.

Loek lived in refugee camps in the early 1980s. Despite international efforts since her time to improve the education of young refugees and prevent them from leaving camps years behind their future peers, there is still much to be done. In Loek’s situation, after moving from Khao ‘i’ Dang to a refugee camp in the Philippines, she was finally transported to the U.S. where she was significantly behind other students. Luckily, she was a quick study and grasped material easily. After two years of English Second Language courses and special tutelage in the American school system, she was able to work with students of her own age at age 13 in eighth grade.

Often, the curricula that camps institute are taken from their host country or are combined with those of other countries’, often leading to inconsistent educational policies with instructors who may not even speak the same language as those inside the camp. Moreover, issues of gender inequality, lack of special education for the disabled, unqualified teaching officials, and religious conflicts between the curriculum and the students plague the systems of all too many refugee camps around the world.

In essence, most young refugees like the young Thida Tim Loek receive some kind of education while living at a camp – and the majority of the schooling comes from efforts by the UN and other NGOs. However, it is rare that refugees receive any more than the basics to prevent illiteracy. For those who leave the camps, they often take with them limited math or critical thinking skills. While UNICEF and the UNHCR have some tacit guidelines about what should be taught at certain age levels, the world lacks any universal mandates for the children like Loek who come to refugee camp knowing little more than of the horrors they have survived.

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