- Leila Toplic, LRNG CMO, @ltoplic

Across the globe, forced displacement has hit a record high — more than 65.3 million people, or one person in 113, have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. The United Nations’ Global Trends report notes that on average 24 people were forced to flee each minute in 2015, creating the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Of more than 21.3 million refugees worldwide, more than half are children. Trauma, poverty, social isolation, and a lack of access to education are creating a bleak future for a generation of young people who are being given little reason to hope for a better tomorrow.

Helping this displaced generation find a sense of purpose and a path to a better future including employment is critical for their individual futures, their home countries, and our collective well-being as a global community.

“We should start thinking of refugee camps and communities as more than temporary population centers where people are given shelter and food, and where they languish in isolation, waiting for the war to stop,” said Melissa Fleming, Chief Spokesperson for UNHCR. “Rather, they can be places where refugees learn, train and prepare to be agents of positive change for their war-torn countries.”

One innovative approach holds particular promise for aiding refugee education at scale, building understanding across cultures, and supporting the psychological well-being of refugee children — virtual exchange.

In early June, LRNG participated in a roundtable, hosted by the Aspen Institute’s Stevens Initiative, on leveraging virtual exchange to meet the educational needs of Syrian refugees, who now number a staggering 4.8 million. The Stevens Initiative is an international public-private partnership designed to increase people-to-people exchange between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa as a lasting tribute to the legacy of the late Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Through structured online engagements between youth from the middle school through post-secondary levels, the Initiative aims to increase mutual understanding and equip a generation of globally minded youth with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Like LRNG, virtual exchange is a form of Connected Learning: it actively engages the learner, it builds on young people’s passions, it is collaborative both online and offline, and it is production-oriented.

International exchange programs have long been recognized as an effective way to learn about other cultures, build global diplomacy and plant the seeds of peace — but traditionally have only be available to a very small percentage of youth in a limited number of countries. Now, however, advances in technology make it possible for youth everywhere to participate in cross-cultural exchange. High quality virtual exchange programs, such as those supported by the Stevens Initiative, use new media technologies to enable deep, interactive, social learning that prepares young people to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world.

Young refugees have been uprooted from everything they know, often fleeing suddenly, bringing with them only a few belongings stuffed into a duffle bag or backpack, and landing in a new community or country where they often feel isolated and unwelcome. Being connected to peers and mentors who care about them as individuals, are eager to learn about their culture, and collaborate with them on shared intellectual and creative goals is a powerful antidote to social isolation and purposelessness. For non-refugee youth participants, the experience can be an equally powerful tool for building empathy and respect.

I personally have witnessed how transformative such cross-cultural connections can be. When I was 18 years old, my family fled our home in war-torn Bosnia. Shortly after we arrived at a refugee camp in Hungary, I volunteered to teach art and English to 4th to 9th graders at the refugee school. Through this job, I collaborated with Peace Corps volunteers and got to know visitors from institutions like the American International School in Budapest. For visitors, being at the camp was an opportunity to fulfill a passion for helping people. For me, the camp offered a new community, and an outlet to let go of the past and to find hope for the future.

Becoming a refugee is a painful and disorienting experience. When everything in life is suddenly turned upside down, it is the strength of the temporary community and opportunities like access to education that restore hope and provide a path to a better future.

Now, enabled by technology, refugees can participate in exchanges that will give them a chance to continue their education and learn about the world. Through the work of its award recipient Global Nomads group, for example, the Stevens Initiative is connecting Syrian refugees at secondary schools in Jordan with high school students in the United States.

Exchange platforms also hold the promise of developing teaching capacity within the refugee community to ensure young refugees can continue their education. Adult refugees who are willing and able, like I was, to take on a teaching role could receive training and support from teachers abroad. Teacher education through virtual exchange can build better educational experiences for refugee teachers and students alike.

Of course, ensuring that virtual exchange experiences are beneficial and widely available to refugees is not a simple task. Technology can be a barrier in war-torn or remote regions. However, mobile technology is widely available; 87% of Syrians, for example, have cell phone subscriptions. And many refugees are settled in urban areas, making web-enabled technology not just feasible but often more affordable and practical than providing outside teaching staff.

Applications such as Skype instant translator can be used to support communications. Virtual exchange can also support learning a new language, a plus for future opportunities.

Certification of learning is another challenge for refugee youth, so many of whom have been out of the formal education system for years. Digital badging is one solution. In the United States, LRNG is making it possible for young people who participate in informal learning experiences to earn digital badges to document their learning. This approach can be extended across the globe. As more colleges and employers accept verified digital badges as proof of achievement, badges can help young refugees continue their education and pursue more meaningful employment.

Another advantage of virtual exchange is that it can bring the classroom to refugee youth wherever they are, and adjust to their particular circumstances. Whether young people are displaced within their home country but lack access to school, are living in a host country where they don’t speak the language, or are in a refugee camp or another temporary setting, virtual exchange can help overcome barriers to schooling such as lack of transportation, cultural rules (such as those forbidding girls to learn alongside boys), or a need for flexible scheduling to allow refugee youth to work to help support their families. Virtual exchange is not meant to function in isolation from in-person interaction. In fact, virtual exchange is most effective when blended with in-person support from and engagement with peers, teachers, and mentors, creating a sense of community and belonging in both online and offline settings.

Speaking to the refugee crisis, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that, “Refugees have been deprived of their homes, but they must not be deprived of their futures.”

The Stevens Initiative is supporting that goal by making programs for refugees a significant priority for future awards. The next round of the award competition will be announced this fall on the Initiative’s website. Technology providers, aid and development organizations, and other potential partners are encouraged to contact the Stevens Initiative to join in this effort to include refugees in virtual exchange. I look forward to seeing the innovative work that virtual exchange educators — and others in the public and private sector who are moved by the depth of this crisis — will envision and implement to ensure a better future for young refugees, and a brighter future for our world.

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