Unwritten: Understanding the Emptiness of Refugee Adolescent Education
Guest Contribution by Cayce Pack, New York City, USA.
Six years of work in refugee resettlement and several semesters of human rights studies seemed as void as the blank pages in their books. The sun was violent in its afternoon heat and a crowd of adolescent faces perplexed in questions surrounded me…
A few minutes prior, I handed out small packets of paper with instructions to depict their current lives as part of a creative writing project with their school. For a brief moment, chatter ensued and crayons scribbled some rudimentary maps of the African continent while pencils crafted short sentences about families and favorite sports. I noticed the variances of their introductions to the books: I am from Eritrea, My home is South Sudan, I belong to Uganda, I love Somalia. As they continued to work, the middle sections of their stories started to grow similar. I live in Cairo, I move to Egypt. Yet I was startled when the fifteen-student class all produced identical conclusions to their creative writing project: blank, wordless, empty white pages.
Yet their blank pages say much more, perhaps, than any paragraph or picture could portray. The classroom was a conglomerate of refugee youth mainly hailing from Horn of Africa countries with pasts mired in conflict, chaos, and constant relocations. Now somewhat settled in Cairo, Egypt; they are enrolled in one of the very few schools for refugee students, but the opportunities and possibilities for their futures remain dishearteningly slim. The legal chokehold surrounding the current generation of refugee adolescents, mainly in the war-soaked regions of Northern and Eastern Africa, has seemingly deadlocked the prospects for future occupations and higher education amongst their demographic. I had come to Cairo to develop a creative writing program within this refugee school and I had arrived in Egypt with years of experience in human rights work; yet it all failed me as I visually saw the massive voids that loomed ahead in the students’ lives. They could not conclude their storybooks because they had no concepts of what might occur as they left the confines of their refugee school for the maddening traps of refugee warehousing. Careers seemed as bleak as college; repatriation appeared as futile as resettlement.
This issue is not bound to Egypt’s borders by any means- in fact; it is perhaps magnified in other refugee-heavy areas of Africa such as Kakuma camp in Kenya as well as the small yet significant line of Sudanese-filled camps on the Ethiopia border. Refugee education policies, which hinge upon nationality and repatriation status, couple themselves with un-standardized curriculum, which has caused an entire generation of refugee youth to come of age within a sweltering storm of legal implications and harmful turmoil. The nature of their backgrounds determines their current environments as well as their resources for the future. Primary schools operate with a decent efficiency, but the adolescent age bracket gapes open with ineffective post-secondary training, limited spaces for enrollment, and dismal opportunities outside of camps. Refugee adolescents are irrefutably the next leaders and decision-makers in the displaced communities, yet by stifling their education, waves of change are stilled and concepts of conflict resolution fade.
The creative writing class in the Cairo refugee secondary school continued for about five weeks, but after I returned to the United States, I still came home with books that had no endings. No conclusions and no transitions; just an unfinished sentence followed by empty pages. If this is how refugee adolescents see themselves, our shared futures seem equally dim. Perhaps by providing proper education reform, we will provide the pencils to write endless possibilities.
Cayce Pack has worked at various refugee resettlement agencies in the United States for several years, where she has served in youth education programming and curriculum development. Her intense passion for refugee issues is focused on displaced adolescents in Northern and Eastern Africa, particularly concerning their access to proper schooling. Cayce recently returned from several months abroad at a refugee school in Egypt and currently attends university in the United States, where she studies Social Work with an international concentration. She serves as co-founder of an upcoming initiative to provide Southern Sudanese students in Ethiopia’s Fugnido region with college scholarships and presently serves in development at an Afghanistan nonprofit as well as a coordinator at a Sudanese community center.