Sarah Dryden Peterson is a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where she teaches on education in armed conflict. Her teaching pulls from her ongoing work in conflict and post conflict settings in sub-Saharan Africa and with African Diaspora communities in the United States and Canada. Her course, she says, mirrors the work she has done in the field both in the course’s content structure, and its perspectives of children, youth and families living in conflict settings, and attempting to obtain an education.

Image: The Brookings Institute

Sarah, spoke to Global Citizen about her work, what needs to be done to make education happen in emergency settings, and how everyone can become an advocate.

What is your current research on education in emergencies?

Image: Sarah Dryden Peterson-HGSE

I have a couple of different strands of research, generally I focus on refugee education through a globalized lens. I also look at particular topics: understanding how refugee education is designed and delivered, and thinking about how global policies have shifted toward integrating refugees into national education systems—on that there has been a big shift over the past five years. I explore these concepts from a local, contextualized level and a global level.

For example what does it mean for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to develop relationships with ministries of education in negotiating national access to schools for refugee children? What does it mean for refugee children and their families entering national schools, following national curriculum not in their own language. These are issues related to belonging, how things like curriculum reflect the realities of children who do not have citizenship in country of asylum, or any permanent residence. It’s important to ask what that means for their futures?

Why should education be prioritized in emergency and fragile settings?

There are two reasons why education should be prioritized in emergency settings. The first is that families and kids want it. I have been in settings of conflict where I have talked to families who have said that they will find a way to get food, find a way to rig up some kind of shelter, but the kind of resources that are required for education are beyond the family’s control. Education is the one element of assistance that displaced communities are consistently requesting asking for.

Second, education in a time of upheaval and uncertainty provides a sense of hope for the future, and it is very hard to continue on without it.

What is the hardest part of your work on education in emergencies?

It is really trying to figure out how to best understand the needs of various communities. I think we are always tempted to think about global solutions, ones that are really quick and fast that could be used in any acute emergencies or even in protracted situations.

The real challenge is that these are acute, urgent needs, that require long-term solutions.

It actually takes quite some time to figure out what the on the ground realities are, what kind of educational initiatives are needed, and the type of real relationships that are essential to create the best type of education for children.

But how do we act quickly and make sure that children who are displaced, and have experienced conflict don’t miss out on education? We need to think about the whole trajectory of kids and families, their educational lives and their livelihoods in general.

This ongoing tension is the hardest part of my work. It is really hard to know exactly how to act for the present and for the future.

Can you give an example of a long-term solution?

Image: Sarah Dryden Peterson-HGSE

I think that the move toward integrating refugees into national education systems is an important first step—it means that refugees are no longer seen as being displaced momentarily, but are in fact displaced over long periods of time.

But there are two challenges that come with this solution. The first challenge is that integrating children on paper doesn’t automatically result in a situation where children feel welcome in school or can relate to the curriculum. It’s about the social realities of these children feeling they belong and are included.

The second challenge is making sure the promise of an education for refugees is a promise of a future. Many students graduate and realize their promise to a better future is actually quite empty, because in almost no situations globally do refugees have the right to work or a path toward citizenship while in exile.

How can all people be advocates for education in emergencies?

No matter where we are in the world we need to be building awareness about the kinds of needs that children and families have in conflict settings. I think one of the most critical elements relates to achieving these long-term solutions I mentioned earlier. These are solutions that will create some kind of stability for the future. We need to make good on the promise of education, and that requires change in the political outlook away from exclusions and towards inclusion.

Any of us, as citizens and as political advocated need to think about what we want our communities to look like, and think more about the possibilities of including refugee kids and families into our schools and our communities rather than putting up walls to keep people out.


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