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Framing the conversation: A (preliminary) theoretical framework for researching and designing higher education programs for forcibly displaced populations

Mon, March 26, 11:30am to 1:00pm, Hilton Reforma, Floor: 2nd Floor, Don Américo


Panelist 1 will frame the conversation by introducing a preliminary theoretical framework to consider when researching and designing higher education programs for forcibly displaced populations. She will provide an overview of the “types” of higher education offerings currently in existence in various settings; identify preliminary gaps in offerings based on these existing offerings and perceived needs; and propose needs for future areas of research and programming to address these areas.

Underlying this presentation is the foundational question: what are the goals of higher education programs that aim to serve refugee and other forcibly displaced populations? In a context of globalization driven by (exclusionary) neoliberal ideals, we face significant and growing disparities throughout the world’s populations that often manifest in growing oppression and human rights violations by the few to the many. This presentation puts at its center our universal commitment to human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Refugees and other forcibly displaced migrants often experience a considerable number of violations on their rights that not only result in their forced migration but also in their transitions and later efforts in rebuilding their lives and communities. We must re-center these rights for all people. By doing so, we reconsider the goals of education, in particular higher education, not only as a means for self sufficiency but also as an agent for change for communities and the world.

To dissect this a little further, we reference the dominant discourse based on frames of victimhood and neediness. While well intentioned, some (not all) humanitarian work arguably also work within this frame. And while it is true that there are periods of dire need, we harm the people we are serving as well as our communities at large if this is the only frame through which we look when we think of refugees and forcibly displaced persons. For these are people who have experienced dire situations not dire people in all situations.

With this in mind, Panelist 1 proposes a shift in the frames through which we consider refugee populations, specifically away from victimhood and helplessness to one of agency, wisdom, and leadership. She draws from the words of Clemantine Wamariya, who at age six was displaced from her birth home of Kigali, Rwanda. After spending the next six years migrating through seven countries and refugee camps throughout Africa, she was eventually granted asylum. She has since graduated from Yale University, appointed by President Obama to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and reunited with her birth family on The Oprah Show. She is now a human rights advocate. Wamariya (2013) writes, “Refugees are going to be the next generation of leaders who shape the United States, their own countries of origin and beyond. We, more than anybody else, understand the value of peace, and are going to be leaders that promote it.”

Education arguably will have a key role in this. Yet, leadership programs at universities around the world are extremely difficult to access, if not impossible for refugees living in camps or who are in transition. Further, these programs reside within a larger societal context run by a neoliberal agenda. Inspired by Wamariya’s words and informal observations in several educational programs for refugees, this presentation will share preliminary (ongoing) findings that more formally assess the aforementioned observations in an attempt to start building a case for higher education programs within forcibly displaced populations that have the longer-term goal contributing to peace building (vs. the goal of perpetuating the neoliberal agenda).

Work presented is currently in a very preliminary stage. By the time of the conference, the researcher expects to have a theoretical framework plus preliminary (albeit small) data sets to present to test this hypothesis and informal observations. This study lays the groundwork for a larger dissertation and life work that aims to contribute to this growing area of research, as well as affect program offerings in camp and 3rd country resettlement areas.


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