Jesuit Refugee Service outlines educational vision and hints at further Georgetown involvement
Sunday afternoon, Internet2, a community of academic, industry, and government leaders who work together to find ways to advance global research and education, is hosting its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Georgetown President Jack DeGioia, along with members of the Jesuit Refugee Service and the World Bank will deliver the meeting’s keynote address.
DeGioia’s address follows a trip taken last year by Georgetown faculty and staff to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, which houses refugees from conflicts in Kenya. The camp is home to over 100,000 refugees, many from Sudan and Somalia, and JRS has been there for months providing aid and protection to the refugees.
Yesterday, Vox interviewed International Director of JRS Peter Balleis S.J., who explained the role technology plays in JRS’s educational programs.
In recent times, however, JRS has been able to provide the refugees with far more than aid materials and physical protection. JRS now has a broad network of educators, who, with the help of modern technology, are able to provide high-level education to the refugees in their camps.
“The Jesuit Refugee Service has been involved in over 50 countries for more than 30 years,” Balleis said. “Some Jesuit in a refugee camp had the idea to partner with a Catholic, Australian university to bring tertiary education to the refugees.” Since then, Balleis explained, JRS has worked to find further ways to bring higher education to camps around the world.
“Technology makes it possible,” Balleis said. “15 years ago we started a tutorship program in a camp for 10 years with 60 students, and only 20 graduated. There was no personal, direct link with the university.” Improved communications technology has removed this barrier between students and teachers. Now university professors can directly interact with refugees who are miles away.
JRS first implemented the new approach in Malawi, Kenya, and Syria, and, while they found tremendous success, these programs taught JRS a few key ways to improve. For example, in addition to allowing refugees to receive full diplomas in certain subjects, JRS offers the refugees certificate courses. “Our assessment [of the first three camps] showed us that, while there was a need for tertiary education on a diploma level, there’s also a need for … shorter courses, delivered in the course of three months,” Balleis said. “These ‘certificate courses’ make a faster change in the life of a camp.”
The online diploma program for refugees began in October of 2010, meaning that the first graduates will be receiving their diplomas this year. Each year, a typical refugee camp program will take in 30 or 35 students, who are less likely to drop out than a typical university student, according to Balleis.
Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz, the Chief Information Officer of JesuitNET, joined Balleis in his interview with Vox and offered more insight into how the refugee learning centers are built. As Bonfini-Hotlosz explained, not much is needed to make a very big difference. The typical learning learning center has about 70 computers, a few big rooms, a source of sufficient power, and internet access. “If we can get a drop into anywhere, we open up the world for these people,” Bonfini-Hotlosz said.
Even though most of the professors are miles away from the refugees, they feel a close connection with each their students. Bonfini-Hotlosz recounted her experience teaching a course to refugees. “There was no mental distance between me and the camp,” she said. “Even though I haven’t been there physically, it’s like I was there every day I was teaching them.”
Unfortunately, the program in Syria was uprooted by the outbreak of civil war this past year and was moved to Lebanon, where JSR certificate course graduates have helped establish a new place for refugees.
Balleis sees the ultimate goal of the refugee program as reducing global violence and engendering communities with more respect for human rights. “If you look at the world, the places with the lowest human development index … have a lot of wars,” Balleis said. “I come to a very simple conclusion: low connectedness and low knowledge mean higher conflict … That’s where we are.”
JSR has high hopes to improve the learning even further. While many universities have professors and administrators participating to teach and create courses for the refugees, Regis University officially accredits the their work and diplomas. Father Balleis revealed that he hopes that Georgetown someday may accredit the refugee diplomas.
Additionally, according to Balleis, an online tutoring program between the refugees and Georgetown students may someday become a reality. “Georgetown students could help a refugee student on the other side,” he said. “I would love to have students from the universities which help us spend two or three months to be a tutor and study with the refugees online.”
Photo: Ryan Greene/Georgetown Voice