Remarks by Associate Administrator Eric G. Postel at the Urban Refugee Education Roundtable

Monday, October 3, 2016

Greetings and Acknowledgements:

Good morning!  Thank you Mary for that warm welcome.  And thank you to the Education in Crisis and Conflict Network, Teachers College - Columbia University, and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies for hosting today’s event.

This event provides a great opportunity to highlight one of the most pressing issues of our time – the education needs of refugees.  We are pleased to have such an esteemed group of researchers, practitioners and policymakers gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities for providing education to refugee children living in urban settings.

Today’s roundtable event is especially timely given recent global developments – the launch of Education Cannot Wait, the commitments made during the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, the recommendations made in the Education Finance Commission’s The Learning Generation report, and the UN Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development to be held in two weeks.

But the discussions here today are most pressing for the 3.5 million refugee children who are out of school around the world.


Let me share just one story from our team in Jordan about a young boy, Abdul Malek. Abdul fled violence Dera’a, Syria three years ago.  His family sought refuge in Jordan and settled in Irbid, the third largest city in the country.  Abdul’s mother Wafa’a, more than anything else, wanted Abdul and his two brothers to go to school.  She tried to enroll them in public schools but they were turned away because there was no space for them.  The school that did have space was a local private school.  Abdul and his brothers began the school year, but after a few months they had to drop out because the family could not afford to pay the $40 per month in fees.  Sadly, the challenges Abdul faced in trying to go to school are not uncommon.

Urban Refugee Education Challenges:

As you know, when a crisis hits or a conflict erupts, families get displaced.  Children’s lives are uprooted and put under stress.  The routines of daily life are disrupted. Children experience and witness violence and other traumatic events either in their home countries or en route to a safe haven.  Throughout all of this, children lose opportunities to learn, play and develop in a supportive and caring environment. This is the case no matter where they seek refuge.

Interestingly, when we think of refugees fleeing conflict and disaster, we often picture them in camps, living in tents. The reality is that the majority of refugees are not living in camps.  In fact, as others have said, two-thirds of all refugees live in urban communities, not in camps.  And these displaced families face unique challenges.  In an urban environment, identification and registration of refugees is difficult and can leave many without the needed documentation to access essential services, including education.  Without the right to work, urban refugees are especially burdened by a higher cost of living.  So just like Abdul’s family, many families struggle to pay for a pen and notebook for their children to take to school, let alone pay school fees.  With these constraints, many families feel they have no choice but to send their children out to work illegally instead of sending them to school.

For Abdul, his mother found a community center run by the Islamic Charity Centre Society (ICCS) in which to enroll Abdul and his brothers.  Now Abdul regularly attends classes where he can learn Arabic and math as well as benefit from psychosocial support.

Unfortunately, too many displaced children are not like Abdul. While regular attendance at school has the potential to help restore a child’s well-being, displaced children continue to face on-going threats in and around schools.  These threats prevent them from staying in school and learning.  In some cases, displaced children are bullied and harassed by their peers.  Teachers may discriminate against them and may use harsher forms of punishment.  And the language of instruction may differ from the child’s mother tongue or home language making it difficult for them to learn.

All of these challenges are further compounded by the development challenges faced by countries of first asylum.  In countries hosting some of the largest populations of refugees – places such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Jordan – local institutions are struggling to cope with natural population growth and urbanization.  These trends tax local systems. Education services are stretched. Schools don’t have enough space for new students. And teachers struggle to deliver quality instruction in overcrowded classrooms.  As a result, education systems may have limited capacity to absorb refugees.


Despite all these challenges, the outlook is not all gloomy. We also see a lot of opportunities for expanding access to displaced populations, particularly in urban environments. Times of crisis can present opportunities for education policy reforms and strengthening of host country institutions – both government and non-governmental.  If well designed and implemented, these reforms have the potential to address inequity in the education system, expanding access to quality education for all children, including vulnerable host community children. It is also an opportunity to build the capacity of the local institutions and education authorities who provide frontline support to schools, principals and teachers.  Where greater flexibility for employment for refugees exists, urban refugee education can also take advantage of trained refugee educators who can serve as teachers, classroom assistants, or parent support in schools with growing student populations.  This can help to address shortages in teacher or school personnel in local schools.

Urban settings also provide an opportunity for concentration of social services.  Schools are more likely to be within a safe distance to where displaced children live.  Integration of displaced children into mixed classrooms with host community children provides the opportunity to teach important social and emotional skills such as empathy, tolerance, cooperation and conflict resolution.  And greater population density means that more specialized non-formal education programs and teacher professional development can be delivered cost-effectively.

Finally, given the other challenges displaced families face, urban environments, the school and education program can provide an opportunity to work more holistically to serve a variety of needs for refugee families.  This may include providing health screenings and immunizations at school, linking cash stipends to education enrollment or providing take home rations or household goods to students.

Questions to Consider:

Before closing, I would like to follow Ita’s excellent example of encouraging frank discussion of how best to move forward with some questions to consider in your formal or informal discussions here today.  As we reflect on the challenges and opportunities, these are some of the questions we at USAID are grappling with.

What are the specific education reforms and policies that can truly lift educational outcomes for all learners in a country, both displaced and host community? What are effective strategies to strengthen institutions, national and local, governmental and non-governmental, to implement these policies and reforms? And how do we ensure no child is left behind?

Today we will hear about how integration into host country schools is a growing trend and one of the leading recommendations for refugee education. However, this is a challenging policy position to take for governments hosting large refugee populations and even donors. Asking those countries to open the school gates to refugees raises a lot of thorny issues that need to be addressed:

  • In many of these refugee-hosting countries, school systems and local schools are already stretched by the pressures of population growth and urbanization. How will they find the extra resources needed to welcome more learners into the system; for teacher salaries, additional classrooms, desks and textbooks?

  • Where will they find the number of qualified teachers needed to meet these changing demands? How will they quickly train enough new teachers to provide even a minimum quality of instruction to refugees? What additional training do current teachers need to support refugees in the classroom? And who will provide it?

  • What new financing models need to be made available to governments hosting large refugee populations to incentivize integration of refugees into local education systems? How can social investments and equity be leveraged by non-state actors to support expansion of the education system?

  • What are realistic employment policies, if any, that can be linked to the education related needs both for refugee teachers, and for future employment of refugee graduates?

Under what conditions can rapid expansion of education services be achieved for displaced populations without diminishing quality?

These are just a few of the issues we are thinking about at USAID.  And these issues are of great concern across the US government at the highest levels today.

Introduction of Deputy Secretary Blinken:

And speaking of high levels, we are lucky to have with us today a strong, consistent advocate for refugees and education, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Deputy Secretary Blinken has served as the Deputy Secretary of State since December 2014.  Prior to that, he held senior foreign policy positions in two administrations over the last two decades.  During his time as Deputy Secretary of State he has championed the cause of refugees around the globe, worked to engage the private sector to deliver solutions for refugees and advocated for ensuring access to education for refugees.  And so I want to turn it over to him to speak more about U.S.  efforts on displaced populations, including urban refugees.  The fact that we are both here today shows the importance the U.S. Government places on making progress to educated refugees.

Welcome Deputy Secretary Blinken!

Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Center