Ukraine and beyond: Lessons in refugee education
A Brookings-Yidan Prize event on key issues in refugee education
Since February 2022, the war on Ukraine has disrupted the education of millions—as more than half of Ukrainian children have left their homes, and over 1,800 education institutions have been damaged. The next months will determine how many of these children are able to access education in their host communities across Europe. Globally, nearly half of all refugee children are out of school. Millions of Syrian, Afghan, Rohingya and other refugee children are unable to access education. In this—and all crises—host communities must be prepared, national policies responsive, and funding available.
The initial education response by countries hosting Ukrainian refugee children has primarily been promising, leading refugee education advocates to question the double standard facing children from other countries. They also worry resources will be shifted away from other already underfunded humanitarian crises. Others have posited that the favorable response by European host communities presents an opportunity to improve refugee education policies globally and advance more innovative practices.
On June 21, the Center for Universal Education and the Yidan Prize Foundation co-hosted a virtual event to explore critical issues in global education today in honor World Refugee Day. Moderated by Nonresident Fellow and refugee education expert Maysa Jalbout, the conversation brought together: David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International; Viktoriia Gnap, Co-Founder and President of Unbreakable Ukraine Foundation; Zarlasht Halaimzai, Founder and CEO of Amna; and Erum Mariam, Executive Director of BRAC Institute of Educational Development.
Gnap, whose organization was founded to respond to the educational needs of Ukrainian students in Poland, underscored the urgency of education in crisis, explaining: “Refugees, the first thing they do is they lose ground under their feet. And the only thing we need to do, and organizations like ours, is to create a new normality for the refugees, for the parents, for the teachers, for the children.” In solidarity with Gnap and the people of Ukraine, the panel—many of whom had themselves experienced conflict or displacement—shined a light on the strength required to respond to refugee crises, particularly when one’s own community is under attack, and underscored the global responsibility to advocate for refugees.
This responsibility was a key theme of the discussion, as panelists discussed the need for systems to respond to refugee education crises. While civil society has a crucial role to play, civil society organizations cannot act alone, and public education systems must be at the center of refugee education responses, as Halaimzai emphasized. Education systems play an essential role in creating welcoming environments for refugees, and the European response to Ukrainian refugees has highlighted that countries can develop policy responses that facilitate access to the education system. Where politics complicate the systems role, advocacy for refugees is critical. Critically, too, as Edwards highlighted, refugee teachers’ credentials need to be formally recognized, something that requires system-level action.
For refugee teachers, as well as students and communities, the panelists highlighted the need to approach refugees and refugee education from an asset mentality. Mariam pushed back against “the common notion of looking at refugees as deficit,” highlighting the tremendous value of engaging refugee communities and building off the culture and strengths of parents, children, and communities as a whole. She explained: “You cannot have a future about refugees without speaking to refugees themselves.”
The future was a theme of the conversation, as well. While refugee education responses tend to prioritize the emergency term, it is critical to support refugees throughout their displacement, across all stages of their educational journeys, and beyond. At all stages prioritizing well-being is essential. As Halamzai explained, a sense of safety and routine is a necessary precondition for learning, healthy relationships, and well-being—both early on and throughout life. This requires attention to refugee children’s social-emotional learning and psychosocial wellness in ways that are culturally relevant and draw from what we know about how the community is thinking. The adversity that refugees face does not end once they reach school or a place of asylum, it can change, and ongoing support and attention to their well-being throughout their educational journey and beyond is critical.
Well-being is inextricably linked to teachers, as all the panelists discussed. Teachers are essential for every aspect of education, and play a central role in supporting refugee student learning and well-being. Teachers’ own well-being must also be supported, particularly among refugee teachers who have experienced the trauma of conflict and displacement. Effective refugee education policy and practice requires teachers who are supported, recognized, and engaged, from the school and community level to the policy level.
Achieving the promises of education for refugee students and teachers, in Ukraine and beyond, will require substantial political commitment and financing. In solidarity with all refugees and displaced people—both Ukrainians and those whose circumstances have received less public attention and support—we share a global responsibility to advocate for, fund, and support inclusive, nurturing, high-quality refugee education.
Director - Center for Universal Education
Senior Fellow - Global Economy and Development
Nonresident Fellow - Global Economy and Development, Center for Universal Education
General Secretary - Education International
Co-Founder and President - Unbreakable Ukraine Foundation
Founder and CEO - Amna (formerly Refugee Trauma Initiative)
Executive Director - BRAC Institute of Educational Development
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