There are more than 25 million people registered as refugees today, displaced by conflict, volatility, or climate change. Of this community, half are children under 18. Their lives have been disrupted and re-organized, often without adequate support. This can lead to trauma, isolation, and perhaps most overlooked, a profound gap in education and emotional development.
Global response to the refugee crisis has focused on food and shelter, with less than 3 percent of aid directed to education. The European Union recently announced plans to increase its education funding for refugee families, but its goal of 10 percent by the end of 2019 is just one step toward ensuring that refugee youth continue to grow and thrive.
Dr. Essam Daod of Humanity Crew summarized the imbalance at the 2019 Skoll World Forum by emphasizing the need for a shift in global mentality toward holistic care. “Mental health aid is not part of the immediate response,” said Daod. “But if we want to save humans, we have to save their souls—S.O.S. means save our souls, not save our bodies.”
Humanity Crew provides mental health interventions and psychological aid to refugees. Its trained volunteers engage in “action on the beach” to greet young refugees with treats and praise. Daod reframes the refugee experience for children by calling them “super heroes” and celebrating their strengths. “As a child psychiatrist, I don’t want to treat PTSD; I want to prevent it,” he explained. “If someone helps them process [crisis] in real time, it will go down in emotional storage as a hard memory, not a traumatic one.”
Closing the Education Gap
Once refugee youth arrive to a new location, education opportunities can be few and far between. The gap can be debilitating for younger children, as the brain seeks critical development milestones during the first five years. This makes early childhood intervention not only vital for each child, but also for the social health of their community.
Sesame Workshop offers education to refugees and displaced people, often through on-the-ground partners like International Rescue Committee. It starts aid efforts by convening local linguists and social workers. “The greatest need is for social and emotional learning,” said Sherrie Rollins Westin, President of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop.
Muzoon Almellehan is an activist, former refugee, and Goodwill Ambassador speaking directly to the refugee youth experience. She calls the refugee crisis a “huge responsibility” in a world where global borders are shifting, and humanity is shared. “It’s not enough to be sad [about crisis],” she said at the Forum. “We have to take serious steps toward improving lives.”
Almellehan also pointed out that when she lived in a refugee camp, her family encouraged her to pursue education opportunities that helped her grow. “When I found education, I realized I can face any challenge,” She said.
Engaging the Whole Family
When families seek refuge, parents are often forced to shift their focus to protection, provision, and problem solving. Sesame Workshop’s programming engages parents by making home visits to the entire family. “The home visitor tells the parents why education is so important,” said Westin. “With time, they start engaging with their children as they did before.”
“The core of the mental situation [for the parent] is guilt and shame,” Daod explained. “They go through so much, and their ability is limited during crisis. We work with the parents, not to teach parenting, but to reactivate them.”
There’s a great deal of return-on-investment when families are supported holistically, including improved health and increased income, says Westin. She also cited a 12 percent learning gain for children who watch international educational programming—equivalent to an entire kindergarten grade.
Where Modeling Meets Scaling
Child development experts often emphasize the need for each child to be exposed to a role model, or a person who influences others. In an environment where refugees are re-settling, this can be especially important in reducing the stigma around crisis or displacement.
Sesame Workshop aims to increase the presence of modeling behaviors like inclusion and acceptance in its educational content by utilizing a $100-million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to expand its education content production in the Syrian response region—and then study its effects and outcomes.
With 96 percent access to television in Syria, Sesame Workshop is able to reach nine million children there with its education content It plans to share its research with the world in the spirit of scalability, says Westin.
It’s clear the global response to the refugee crisis must be more human than humane. In easing the suffering of the refugee experience, we can also focus on humanity’s resilience. But how do we begin prioritizing education and emotional development in our response? At the Forum, experts suggested listening closely to refugee youth, who can tell us their needs.
In its community-based programs, Humanity Crew harnesses art and culture to give youth the tools and models to reframe their difficult experiences. “[We] use music to fight the state of mind of being a refugee they’ll adopt from parents and media,” Daod said.
And Sesame Workshop will soon expand its reach to the Rohingya community with a locally-informed approach. Westin acknowledged its education content for the Rohingya will look very different than programming in Syria. “The basic needs are the same, and learning through play is the opportunity,” she said. “We need to reach children wherever they may be.”
Almellehan’s wisdom came as a powerful call to action: we must move beyond sadness into thoughtful, holistic care and education for refugee youth. Taking her lead, we may able to respond to the refugee crisis with both empathy and opportunity for our global neighbors.
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