Out of sight, out of mind – that is often the plight of refugees, who drift across unfamiliar shores, as victims of war, genocide or natural disaster. In the midst of this chaos, with their lives hanging at the mercy of some foreign nation’s government, the quickest casualty is children’s education. Staying in school keeps children out of brothels, prevents them from falling prey to child traffickers or to child marriage. A higher level of education also allows them opportunities to break out of the hopeless situation they find themselves in, by building lives for themselves. But due to the label of “stateless” that they find glued on themselves, universities are often unable to offer them enrolment. Only 1% of refugee youth attain university education.
Why can’t universities like SMU, which pride themselves on holistic education and innovative learning, open their doors to students who are eager to learn but do not have the infrastructure for it, by using technology to connect our Seminar Rooms to refugee learning centers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand?
Dr Gül İnanç, a Lecturer at the School of Art, Design and Media in Nanyang Technological University, is the recipient of the Koh Boon Hwee Scholar Award 2016 and the founding director of Opening Universities for Refugees (“OUR”).
“Enter to learn, depart to serve.”Dr İnanç fondly recalls the motto of the girls’ college she attended in Turkey, her native country, that built the foundation she stands on today. I met Dr Inanc at a TEDxNTU event in September this year. The only speaker to include videos from three young refugee women in her speech, Dr İnanç’s short presentation left a lasting impact on me. They were student teachers who took the responsibility and chose to educate their communities at a very young age. Their passion for learning inspired me and forced me to reflect on every opportunity we take for granted, here in our privileged worlds.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr İnanç and find out about her initiative, OUR, in depth.
Q: What inspired you to initiate OUR?
A: I came to Singapore in 2011. It was a year that struck tragedy in the hearts of many, the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis. I heard about the influx of refugees into Turkey and as a native, I grew interested in helping these people. Shortly after that, I attended summer school at York University, Canada, where I broadened my horizons and learnt about the social and legal issues afflicting refugees. I learnt of the scale of the problem and how tens of thousands of refugees are living in limbo, within Asia itself. After dedicating sufficient time to understanding the social issue, I developed an idea, a concept to help them, in the way I knew best – through academia. I applied to NTU for class funding in 2015. I began with a small team, consisting of myself and two of my students, and now we have expanded to run projects in four different countries in the region.
We work in conjunction with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partner universities for our forums and projects and this allows us to reach a larger audience with our initiative. We build scholarship schemes for our partner universities in the region, which are open to displaced students. For this we work with donors from Singapore. Recently, we have been able to establish My Academic Pal (“MAP”) for the Refugee Centers in Cisarua, Indonesia. This initiative provides a platform for volunteer teachers from Dulwich College, Singapore to mentor teachers in Cisarua weekly and offer their guidance and support. This is great help for the teachers in Cisarua, who are themselves refugee children and have no prior teaching experience but have completed diplomas to enable them to teach the children they live with.
A: My wish for OUR is for it to cease existing. Our work will be complete when universities begin adopting an “open” mindset and do their part to spread tertiary education opportunities to refugee children as well. When providing an educational support to refugee children becomes a norm for universities, what a beautiful world we would be living in.
Our role is to spread awareness about the predicament of youth who, for no fault of their own, have been displaced from their homes and families, and live a life hung in the balance. They deserve equal access to tertiary education because the potential in these children is remarkable. Often, they display huge resourcefulness and independence (even teaching themselves other languages to adapt more easily to wherever they are resettled) – skills that we can learn from as well. Once the world realizes the amount of untapped potential in this forgotten sect of society and extends their reach to them, our efforts will have paid off.
Q: What learning can students at NTU, NUS and SMU take away from your journey?
A: Working with refugee children is a long-term commitment. Supporting each other is about empathy, not sympathy. Learning process is mutual and it requires a deep understanding of the conflicts and tragedies that these young people have experienced first-hand. These values can allow each of us to grow into people who touch lives around us. No matter what profession you choose to pursue, always spare a thought for those who are not as fortunate. The number of refugees is expected to double in the next few years and therefore, this is a crisis that could happen to any of us.
As students of universities that are highly reputable in Asia, you are in the best position to make a change. Grow aware of your surroundings, and of crises that are afflicting people of a similar age to you and make some effort to reach out to them. That is the responsibility each of us holds as global citizens of 21st century, purely by virtue of the fact that we are all connected.
If there can be Doctors Without Borders and Journalists Without Borders, why not Academics Without Borders? Education is a gift that repays twofold when shared with others. The most meaningful thing for a teacher is to impart their knowledge to students and light a spark in them to return the favour to other students and create an endless cycle of learning. This is a future that we can build. And it starts right here, in our classrooms.