Friday, March 23, 2012

Are schools in refugee camps "good enough" if they are better than most in their region?

Someone recently commented that in many parts of the world schools in refugee camps are actually better than the schools in the surrounding areas of the nations that host these refugee camps or the schools in the nations of origin of the refugees. Therefore, they asked, is it still proper to say that we should be doing more to school and educate refugees in refugee camps?
Although what you say is true, one thing about refugees is that, in my experience, if you look and talk and try to understand their situation, you soon run into needs, very real needs, that it would be good to address. i.e. I became interested in refugee concerns in the USA and because of that visited the Mae Sot area of Thailand and saw nearby Mae Le refugee camp. A friend of mine, a young Karen, the Karen being an ethnic group from the region, told me his parents sent him to the camp because a) he wouldn't be drafted as a child soldier there, and b) the schools were not only better than in rural Karen state in Burma but were also taught in Karen. However when I visited the camp, I visited some Burmese Muslims who were a minority in the mostly Karen camp. They said that their educational opportunities were limited because most of the schools were in the Karen language and they did not speak Karen.
Outside of the camps there are many "illegal Burmese migrants." Many of these are unregistered refugees who do not live in the camps. Others have come to Thailand seeking better economic opportunities. I visited, and did a little bit of volunteering, with their schools. In many cases, these schools could desperately use trained teachers or skilled teacher training. For instance, at the better schools, some courses were taught by college interns (sometimes from Hong Kong) who were teaching in English (a second language for both students and the teacher) and who were often teaching subjects that were basically new to them (i.e. Southeast Asian history taught by Chinese non-history majors) and who were inexperienced teaching with little experience with the students' culture. (Should anyone ask, honestly, I spent most of my first semester at Fudan dealing with adapting to the students' culture and educational style.) I saw one English teacher who spoke Engish and was very dedicated to his work, but who taught by having the students copy and rote memorize long passages of formal English. In my opinion, when you deal with refugees you can almost always find something more to do and it is usually something quite worthwhile that can make a real difference in the lives of generally hard-working people who will take advantage of opportunities when presented.

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