Harness the power of e-learning and a worldwide desire to help by connecting individual refugee learners with volunteer teachers. We may not be able to solve the refugee problem in the near or even distant future. An end to all wars is something we all dream about but is quite an elusive hope. But each of us can do something, however small, and make a difference somewhere in this world. This project will connect teachers around the world who have just a little spare time but who want to make a difference in the life of a single child (or adult) in a refugee camp with someone who wants desperately to learn, but needs some help getting started and help to persevere through the ups and downs of life. Please read about this project in the About page! You can also read about it at the MIT news page . My entire proposal and initial plan are at this Solve solution page . The school where I teach, Dock Mennonite Academy in Lansdale, PA, also published an article about this endeavor which you can read at Dock’s website.
I have sent out the list of free online educational resources, and am posting the list in various facebook groups as well. Please take a look, send me comments or additions if you have not already, and spread the word! I hope these posters will appear in computer rooms at refugee centers around the world, and help direct young people to quality online education resources. Educational Resources List Posters to post
“Solve at MIT is the annual flagship Solve event, which takes place on MIT’s campus. Solvers present their solutions to Solve challenges, and participate in workshops with Solve members to develop partnerships to pilot and implement the solutions.” It was quite a week! From panels including a former Secretary of Defense of the US, a former Chief Technology Officer of the US, and the first African-American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company, to dinner with the CEO and cofounder of iRobot, and a performance by Yo Yo Ma, one couldn’t help feeling intellectually stimulated to capacity. On the refugee side, participants in the workshop on education included representatives from the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children, and representatives of universities including MIT (of course), Harvard, the Africa Leadership Academy, and the University of Geneva. The workshop format provided many opportunities for sharing of experiences, advice and suggestions. While I am still following up on the many great suggestions and new contacts I received, I’ll share with you here my plans for what happens next. Work on the list of online educational resources available for refugees. There is one being compiled by Ana Jorge which is already quite extensive, but needs to be made easier to search by students and teacher (for example, by including brief descriptions and perhaps a rating bar). I’d like to help recruit more people to help with the list (send me a message if you are interested!). Here is my list so far; it’s open for comments. Look for students to pilot the student-teacher mentorship concept. I am hoping, through the new contacts I made at Solve as well as continuing with those I met during my travels, to get more student input into this project. Explore options to work with existing education providers to make their products and our volunteer teachers more accessible to refugees. Finally, if you’re interested in a few more photos from my trip, watch the video collection my Photos App made from my ipad pictures here. Thanks for reading!
Now that my travel time and budget have been exhausted, I offer these lessons learned and thoughts to ponder, which I will take with me to Solve at MIT next week (May 8-10 solve.mit.edu). You can read more in the report I sent a link for in my previous post. Or contact me, and I’d be happy to share more of my personal observations and the stories behind these thoughts with you! 1. The language challenge is huge. Not many teenage refugees in Europe are fluent in English. 2. Volunteers are hard to find and hard to keep. Several people indicated interest in rPartners, but never responded to my follow-ups. Volunteers in the field, and paid staff as well, experience a very high turnover rate. 3. Creating a website doesn’t guarantee it will be found and used. There are many, many websites, Facebook groups, and apps for Refugees already, not all of which are being used or are functional. 4. Motivation is low, among teenagers in European refugee camps, for online learning. There is not enough awareness of the benefits of continued learning nor the content that is available. Challenges aside, I am convinced that there are students out there who would benefit from an online mentor who could be a constant presence in their lives; I met a couple of them myself, and workers in the field told me about others. Finding them and connecting them to a solid online relationship is tricky. It may be that rPartners would be a good place for people who meet by chance to stay connected and stay focused on lifelong learning. There are many English-speaking refugees in African camps, from what I have been told. That needs further study…
I have finished a rather lengthy summary of what I have learned and will share it with you all here: Trip Report – if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, stay tuned, I will be posting shorter stories/excerpts to read later this week, as I prepare for the Solve meetings at MIT May 8-10.
There is one large refugee camp in central Athens, Eleonas camp, described by one volunteer I spoke with as “the best camp in Greece.” The living units here are ready for all weather, equipped with both heating and air conditioning units. The location is very convenient, with easy access for residents to everything the capital city of Greece has to offer, including a popular science fair and Greenpeace picnic the weekend I visited. According to a volunteer, “the beauty of this camp is the community.” The programs are designed with the residents, and many of the residents help run or lead the activities. I was even told of a family that moved to Sweden, but after a trial period, decided to move back to the camp because they missed this “community.” There are also many services provided to refugees and migrants in Athens; in the vicinity of Victoria Square, there are 20 such organizations with everything from dentistry and legal advice to nursery care, yoga, and the basics of food and clothing and a place to shower. The Greek schools are open to all refugees, ages 6-15. Of course, that requires learning in Greek, which is very demanding on these young children. Sometimes algebra homework turns out to be organic chemistry … when all you recognize is that there are formulas involved, but you don’t understand anything else, it’s going to be a challenge to complete any homework! Many children give up. Others are bullied because they don’t understand what the other kids are saying, or they dress differently or look different. Some parents don’t send their kids to school because that would mean accepting the fact that they are going to be in Greece for awhile, but they still look at Greece as only a temporary stop in their journey. Fortunately, as in Thessaloniki, there are hundreds of volunteers around and dozens of groups in Athens aiming to fill in some of those gaps. Language lessons abound: at the Khora community center, the largest such center I’ve seen, 27 language classes are offered every day. Some people take several languages: English, Greek, French, German, and even Arabic and Farsi are offered (many of the volunteers opt for the latter two); some work towards proficiency in English to improve future job prospects, some in German, looking forward to reunification with family there, and some only show up because it gives them a sense of structure to their days. In addition to language lessons, two of the facilities I visited offer access to computers. A large volunteer operation at Eleonas Camp, Project Elea (which hosts 20-40 volunteers every day) has hopes to operate a center, perhaps at the location shown in the photograph at the top of this blog. This center would host computer lessons, exam preparation, certification courses, job search help, and online education. I had the opportunity to talk at length with a computer scientist who is volunteering at a computer lab in a center, and he told me he teaches primarily basic computer literacy (double-click versus single click…) but also some HTML and Office products. Online education is not very well-known around here; most people I have talked with have never heard of Khan academy, a site I take for granted after recommending it to my students in Pennsylvania for years. I am working on a list to send people I’ve met this month to help them find sources like Khan, including Coursera, edX, CoolMath … do you know of others I should include? Please send me a list if you have one!
We visited 5 very different refugee living spaces in the Thessaloniki area in 3 days: my host and fellow Solver from Team Up 2 Teach (www.teamup2teach.org) had a very packed schedule planned for us! The first three camps each had a capacity of over 1,000 residents, but they had been largely cleared out, as they were unsuitable for winter living. People were either relocated to a country of asylum, sent back to Turkey per the recent EU deal, or moved temporarily to apartments or hotels. No one seemed to know for sure, but the general belief was that soon people would be moved back here and many more would be relocated from the islands. At least one NGO we spoke with was using this time to regroup and make better plans for when the population returned. The other two camps were designed to be winter-ready and therefore did not have to send people away for the winter, but these were smaller camps as you’ll see described below. The first three camps were what I expected from watching news reports: one was an old hangar turned into a camp with rows of UNHCR tents crammed inside, rows of portable toilets along the outside wall, and troughs with multiple faucets for washing. Another was an old military air base with living “containers” set up outside in rows. The third was an old factory with similar living units, but set up inside the factory. At each of these places, there were small signs of humanity, such as a swingset pieced together from scrap wood, gardens, and a “women’s space” where women could go to find a peaceful place to relax. The other two refugee areas we visited were quite different. Both were privately run, in collaboration with the refugee residents. One of these had a private security firm contracted to keep the residents safe from ill-wishers such as smugglers and drug-pushers, and the other had no security at all. The first was an old factory which had been transformed by the addition of drywall walls and doors to make rooms for families, and was run rather like a co-op, with a former Iraqi shop-keeeper running the food distribution like a store rather than a soup line, and a clothing “store” where residents shop for clothes with a weekly allotment of points, rather than lining up to accept packets of mismatched clothing. The second was an apartment building which has been rented by private donations and “leased” to refugee families at no cost. The children in those families are fully integrated into the Greek schools, and the program director works directly with the school principal to resolve issues as they arise. The sudden influx of very large numbers of people into Greece was met by a fast grass roots movement responding to their needs with human compassion. We met people who came here to help from Spain, England, France, Portugal, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Greece, United States and Brazil (I may be missing some!). By far, the largest number of volunteers fell in the “20-something” age group. Many of the volunteers we met first appeared at the makeshift sites where thousands of people were stranded in Idomeni when the border with Macedonia suddenly closed, or were being rescued on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos. When those sites were closed or became overcrowded with official response teams, these volunteers began to form NGOs of their own to address different needs and handle the massive amounts of funds they were able to raise from crowdsourcing sites. Because they were small organizations, with the energy youth provides and the flexibility to move and respond quickly, they were able to make exceptional strides to quickly raise funds on social media and meet many immediate needs. In our three days in the area, we met people from no fewer than 10 such organizations, some registered with the Greek government and some not registered. Now that some time has passed, the official organizations, including UNHCR, Save the Children and Caritas, have moved in to the camps to provide a more structured and systematic response. One has to understand both points of view; the independent NGOs were able to respond quickly because they had no oversight, but there are problems with no oversight, especially when such vulnerable populations are involved. The larger organizations necessarily take longer to respond, and have been criticized for that, but they come with years of expertise in working in emergency situations, established forms… Continue Reading →
How to summarize everything I’ve seen and learned in Bulgaria in a few paragraphs? You can read about the numbers of refugees in this country here. You can read about the legal rights to education of children here . Or, you can read about what the Corporation for Voluntary Service is doing to help in the camps here . In the short time I have been able to spend here, I have been able to see what is only a small piece of the picture. Perhaps the best I can do here is to give you a piece of the piece of that picture. I will start by describing two people I met here, both Bulgarian, who represent what many others are doing as well. I happened in on “Naomi’s” first day in what’s called a “non-formal education” class. Naomi (not her real name) is just out of college, and eager to start helping. I asked her how she came here: “the internet.” Seeing the news, hearing nothing but negative news about riots by “dissatisfied refugees,” hoards of newcomers draining Bulgaria’s already scarce resources, she knew there had to be more going on; there had to be some light of hope. So she searched online for a way to volunteer, and found her way here. She doesn’t tell her friends that she is volunteering at the camps; this is a divisive issue which has already cost her some friendships. Many Bulgarians are resentful that so much money and effort is being spent on refugees, while their own citizens still suffer in poverty. Some even look at the refugees and think they have it too easy, that everything is handed to them, while they themselves had to work very hard for what they have. Naomi has no educational training nor experience; she will shadow an experienced volunteer here today, and begin planning her own lessons next week. The room she is in looks like many American kindergarten rooms: space for storytime on a rug, brightly painted walls, and student work hanging on display. Unlike the American rooms, however, there is no attendance list (the makeup of the classes change every day), no parents to call if the child is missing, no reports home or plans for next year. Here, the focus is today; who knows what tomorrow will bring, and the past is often too painful to think about. At another place, I met a technology staff member, hired to administer the computer labs in the camps. They’re not huge, 8 or 12 computers in each, but they are nicely equipped. This IT (information technology) man is very patient with the children coming in, and assures those he has to turn away that they can come back later for another class. He walks the group through concepts such as a USB plug versus a headphones plug, opening a browser, google, and “shut down,” with the help of a translator provided by the Bulgarian Red Cross. The children are excited to find their favorite cartoons at YouTube, and to play games they find (at this point, I couldn’t resist showing the child next to me CoolMath.com, and sending her off on a trail of fun math games!) Besides the “native” Bulgarians, there are also many “temporary Bulgarians.” People who are here for jobs, or as spouses or children of those here for jobs, university students here for a period of years, and people sent by churches to be representatives of Christ reaching out here in this crisis. People working with the Bulgarian Red Cross, Unicef, Caritas and The Refugee Project overlap in complex ways – many people and many projects are seeking ways to help answer the needs here, and solutions are pieced together to form an imperfect patchwork which tries to cover the needs but leaves so much unanswered. In answer to one big question I’ve had about this online mentoring concept: yes, there is technology available. It seems the camp computer labs are unfortunately not accessible to anyone at any time, only when the staff is present, and I was only able to see children using them (again, that’s just my piece, I can’t speak for what happens elsewhere and at different times). However, I noticed a cyber cafe near one of the camps, and there were certainly smart phones be used prolifically. So, the technology is there; what is missing, however, is the training to use that technology, and specifically to use it for educational purposes. Things I take for… Continue Reading →
On March 21-23, I attended a symposium, workshops, and strategy session of the Mobile Learning Week hosted by UNESCO in Paris. The focus of the week was leveraging the power of technology, specifically low-cost mobile technology, to help provide education in emergency situations. This was a great gathering of key players in refugee education, including the UNHCR, USAID, Unicef, UNESCO, Google.org, several universities, and many, many NGOs serving refugee populations. The opening comments were truly inspiring words, from a refugee who participated in the Connected Learning higher education program in Kenya. Ella Ininahazwe from Rwanda said, “The worst thing for a refugee is to not have education because that means things will only get worse. The refugee loses hope.” “The quality of education that is available to refugees is not adequate.” “They are surrounded by negative and hopeless thoughts. They don’t want to learn in these circumstances. That is what mobile education can do, help them see beyond where they are.” The first breakout session I attended focused on higher education opportunities and research, largely in sub-Saharan African camps. It’s occurring to me that I should be considering that area for an initial location; the need is great and long-term there, and language would not be such an issue. Tertiary education was the place to start, not only to give people hopes for jobs, but also to create an incentive for kids to continue primary and secondary education. Some of the lessons learned for higher education apply to secondary as well. Here are some key points I will consider: Safety – can students get to the learning center? (not easy to predict). Communication more important than content (because content already exists) – Need to be able to adapt; get rid of huge complex platform and use a simple blog for conversations. Internet is still a challenge. Blended learning cannot happen in places with unreliable internet. Immediacy is lacking in the blog, it still feels unconnected while you wait for a response – so use WhatsApp for conversations – kids will talk about hope and feel connected. Don’t do one-time workshops – need to do it over a period of time to get real outcomes. Important to build curriculum as you go – use learner contributions and feedback, too – bonus: more student buy-in. Technology is jut a piece of the puzzle, the person makes the difference. Steer away from schedules and deadlines. Need to train students and teachers who have not been exposed to computers. Observations: The model seems to be that a company creates a platform/app/system and then they pass it on to a partner in the field who implements it. RPartners needs to find a partner, or this will not happen. This will be my primary focus for the next few weeks. There is no one-size-fits all solution; every context is unique and requires a unique solution. That being said, we still learn from each other and share lessons learned and resources, and we should be linking our related solutions together. It could be that rPartners is an add-on to another existing program to supplement what is already in place. Questions that arose: What about the kids not motivated to learn, how do we reach them? How do you make any of this sustainable? If it costs money now, it will always cost money. Can this be a crowd-sourced program? Thanks for sticking with me this far! Your comments and suggestions are always welcome!
The first stop on my research trip has been to Lille, France. Lille is the third largest metropolitan area in France and is home to many refugees from Congo, Eritrea, Sudan, Chad, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. Like many other European nations, France struggles with how to care for the large number of people seeking asylum there. Tent cities appear in parks, such as the much-publicized “Jungle of Calais,” and are torn down; some people are given housing, but then those locations are closed down as well after a period of months. Many of the asylum-seekers are minors, most are boys; some find families to live with, some sleep in church basements until the church becomes overwhelmed and they have to find a new place. I was hosted by a kind and generous Christian pastor who introduced me to other Americans and Brits who are all trying to help find solutions and care for these people. They plan to start a community center where people, in particular the displaced minors, can have a place to find services, use computers, and build relationships. Many French “associations” exist as well, to help with needs for computer access, lawyers, and other practical aid. This type of place could be a perfect spot for refugees to connect with an online teacher-mentor who can help them develop a personal educational program to meet their goals. We met with a young man from Congo today who resonated with our question, “What if you have goals but you don’t know how to get started?” I was able to direct him to another Solve “solution” for college-aged students, called Kiron.ngo. Which brings to mind another challenge: there are so many good initiatives out there for refugees, but how do we get the word out?
My bag is just about packed (pretty heavy with a few old laptops to donate to my friends at IAFR!), the flight itineraries printed (old school, I know, but I just don’t trust my phone and I have no data overseas), pencils sharpened, and I’m ready to go. The purpose of this trip is to listen to the needs of refugee workers and families, and bring back that information so we can figure out how best to serve them. We’ll be able to draw up some more detailed plans in April, and then be ready to present our pitch to the Solve community at MIT in May. We have a Facebook group with several teachers signed on (fill out the contact survey on the home page if you’re a teacher who wants to join!) and I’m now looking for students to come “talk” with us there. The name of the group is…. rPartners: “r” for “refugee,” “remote,” and a host of other things (see the word cloud below). The Logo is compliments of my dear friend Sarah, a children’s book illustrator living in London. Take a look at the flyer I’ll be handing out at computer centers, too. rPartnersFlyer Thank you for your support, the next update will be from France!
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