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Refugees and education

Sarah Smith on the challenges of educating children during crises

We need to start thinking of education as a basic need.

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

In a crisis, first responders should focus on delivering the most lifesaving interventions: Providing food, water, and shelter should be priorities for humanitarians.

Or should they? Sarah Smith, the senior director of education at the International Rescue Committee, argues that humanitarian responders should start thinking of education as every bit as important as other basic human needs. And, bucking the consensus among development practitioners, she wants us to spend resources in the most fragile, war-torn places.

“We need to realize that education is indeed a basic need, and a basic right, and an essential service -- and arguably lifesaving, especially when children are under such risk and threat,” she tells Displaced hosts Grant Gordon and Ravi Gurumurthy. School is a place where displaced children can find a safe haven. And politicians, human rights advocates and novelists have warned about the dangers of a “lost generation” of refugee children who miss out not just on education, but on the chance to be a kid while displaced.

Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the International Rescue Committee.

This conversation drills down into the debate over how to ensure refugee children -- who make up over half of the world’s 23 million refugees -- are able to continue their education in the midst of displacement and toxic stress. The grim truth about modern displacement is that it is more protracted than ever before: Refugees spend an average of 17 years displaced. In that time, an infant could become a senior in high school without ever setting foot in their home country, although the odds are not good: Only half of refugee children and 25% of refugee teens are in school. Parents, and government officials, face tough choices: Should refugee students be taught in the language of their home countries, in a parallel curriculum, on the assumption that they will one day go home? Or should they be integrated into a national schooling system, helping them to forge a new life in a country perhaps conflicted over their presence?

Smith calls on the private sector to help humanitarians ramp up the current 2% of humanitarian funding that goes towards education, but she also notes that investments in education don’t need to be huge to be effective in improving student learning and wellbeing. To that end, she’s spearheading collaborations between the International Rescue Committee and partners like Sesame Street and Vroom to develop content that allows parents to take a more active role in their children’s education, and children to continue learning outside the classroom.

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Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.