When education is free but unequal: the refugee experience

“Knowledge is power, information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family” – Kofi Annan.

I am, by all accounts, extremely lucky. I grew up in a comfortable house in Sydney with two tertiary-educated parents. I went to a private school. My Mum drove me every morning until I was old enough to drive myself. At some point in my final year I decided I wanted to study international relations and law at university and so I did. I took these things for granted, even while my parents told me over and over again how incredibly privileged I was to have an education.

I was 11 when 9/11, the ‘Tampa’ and ‘Children Overboard’ happened, each within a few months of each other.  If was the first time I remember consciously noting the politics that underpinned a conversation about refugees and asylum seekers. Everybody seemed to weigh in. An old woman at the bank told my  Fiji-Indian father to ‘get back on his boat’. My Year Six teacher showed our class a 60 Minutes segment about asylum seekers and explained that they were coming to take our parent’s jobs.  The practical distinction between ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ became blurred. Legal definitions were ignored.

Matthews talks of an Australia where “the figure of the ‘refugee’ serves to establish an exclusionary Australian national identity which differentiates, recentres and reconstructs ‘us’ over and against ‘them’”[1]. I grew up in the shadow of this ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality amongst wealthier immigrants who had come to Australia ‘the right way’ and people born in Australia who felt somehow superior, while conveniently ignoring Indigenous claims to the land.

My parents made no attempt to hide their distaste for governments who used the plight of refugees and asylum seekers as a political football. My mother is an academic who has taught tertiary learning skills for more than 30 years. She recalls Deng, a former child soldier, working all night and then turning up to an academic writing workshop she was running. Deng now owns a law firm in Western Sydney. When I was younger, stories like this, of the resilience of the human spirit, resonated with me

As soon as I was old enough, I started travelling. I saw firsthand the struggle for quality education in countries crippled by systemic poverty, war and conflict.  In Cambodia, some children are forced out of school by their parents to beg on the streets. In Colombia, with its high rate of teen pregnancy, particularly in impoverished areas, many girls have no option but to leave school to care for their children.

I have also met refugees awaiting resettlement. Some have been educated in their country of origin and desperately want the same for their children. Some are illiterate in their native language and formal education remains a distant dream. One thing has consistently stood out in our conversations: the opportunity for themselves or their children to receive an education in their country of resettlement is a priority.

Needless to say, my perspective on education has changed significantly. As hard as I worked academically, I was undoubtedly given a huge head start. I was lucky to not have to fight for my right to an education as a girl. I was lucky that the six-minute commute between my home and my school didn’t cost me my life. I was lucky to have the resources I needed to do my homework – a computer, parents who could help, my own bedroom with a desk and a chair. This was my foundation.

Foundations are invaluable, but do not come easily when one has been forcibly uprooted from their country of origin. Refugees undoubtedly face a myriad of obstacles during resettlement, and building a solid foundation from which they can truly benefit from formal education is near impossible without assistance.

This assistance is not as forthcoming as it should be. As of 2019, education policy and practice in Australia remains largely uninformed by the experiences of refugees in the Australian school system[2]. My sister is a primary school teacher with a Graduate Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)  who prefers to work in schools with significant refugee populations. Her experience as an advocate for education equality amongst primary aged refugees in the Australian education system is fairly harrowing. It is underpinned by the frustration of having to send refugee students home to clearly traumatised parents who do not speak English and who cannot assist with homework or assignments. Inevitably, the same students return discouraged to the classroom the next day.

It is clear that the digital age has furthered an already significant divide between students of refugee backgrounds and those without. In many Sydney primary schools, a portion of the curriculum is taught online. Each student, sometimes from Year Four up, has a Google Account and content, including homework and assignments, are uploaded online. Students without access to a device or the internet are often directed to the local library which presents new problems: parents working two jobs each cannot always drive their children, a basic level of computer literacy is required. For newly arrived students of refugee backgrounds, who have never used a computer before, who are not confident speaking English, and whose parents cannot assist, this can be a monumental and overwhelming task.

This was the experience of one of my sister’s students, a Tamil refugee whose family had been detained on Christmas Island before being settled in Australia. The student recalled his life on Christmas Island with the familiar innocence of a child – there were ‘pools’ – in reality, dug-out holes that had filled with water. Still, he suffered from residual trauma that impacted his ability to retain information. On top of this, while other students worked from laptops or tablets that they could take home with them, the student and approximately five others, the majority from refugee backgrounds, took it in turns to work from the single classroom desktop. It was inevitable that he would fall behind. The support that my sister could offer as a single teacher in a classroom of 30 students was limited.

This article is in no way intended to be a generalisation and nor does it assume that every refugee’s experience is the same. There are children, even adults, of non-refugee backgrounds who face similar difficulties. There are refugees who arrive with foundations already in place. It does acknowledge, however, that refugees are a particularly vulnerable group in society because their very classification denotes displacement, often accompanied by trauma and war. Despite this, their experiences, resilience and skills have the potential to  greatly enrich Australia if given the right tools.

We can only reap what we sow as a society. If we don’t encourage and support equal access to education for all Australians, we will lose out. If we don’t actively invest in bridging the digital divide, refugees will continue to be disenfranchised when it comes to the right to education. If we don’t assist with building foundations, individuals within vulnerable groups will miss the opportunity to realise their potential and pursue meaningful futures.

Sowing the seeds for a better educational experience for resettled refugees cannot be done in isolation. The rhetoric surrounding refugees and asylum seekers in Australian discourse has long been underpinned by xenophobia. This paradigm needs to shift. We need to understand the very real plight of refugees and the level of human suffering that occurs during forcible displacement. The key to bringing about change is for enough people to acknowledge deficiencies in society and desire better for the future.

[1] Julie Matthews (2019) Maligned Mobilities, absences and emergencies: refugee education in Australia, International Journal of Inclusive Education, DOI: 10. (8 Feb 2019)
[2] Matthews (2019), as above, DOI: 10. (8 Feb 2019)

The Value of Opportunity

I want to talk about the value of opportunity in a sense no way related to any type of microeconomic theory. In fact, I want to talk about how invaluable opportunity is, because if I stripped my life down to one without opportunity, things would be very, very different.

March marked my second trip with World of Children Award, this time to South America. Last year, I was honoured to see Catalina Escobar, the driving force behind the creation of the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation, known colloquially as JuanFe, receive the 2015 World of Children Health Award. A day spent observing their work taught me exactly how precious opportunity is. 

We start in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Cartagena, Colombia. The first thing that strikes me is that we need two police escorts to enter this particular barrio in broad daylight. Almost automatically I want to resist and politely tell them we’ll be just fine. It turns out that this neighbourhood exists in such a state of desperation that there’s no negotiating. We get escorts.


One of Cartagena’s poorest barrios

I soon forget we’re being escorted because I’m struck by just how many generations it is possible to so creatively squeeze into a two-room hut made from mismatched pieces of corrugated iron. Sometimes two generations are producing children at the same time. We meet teenage mothers ranging from fourteen to eighteen who point out their young proudly from a crowd of kids.


Four generations, one hut, two rooms.

It is awful, but with my career-driven, you’ll-never-make-me-a-housewife mindset I can’t for the life of me fathom why a woman of eighteen, living in such extreme poverty, is eight months pregnant with her third child. My thoughts go straight to sexual assault, or at the very least duress, and while we do meet young mothers who have been in such agonising situations, Daniel, our guide for the morning, offers another profound explanation:

“These girls have nothing. Sometimes they figure if they have a baby; they’ll have something.”


Eighteen and eight months along with baby three

Later, Eunice, a JuanFe social worker, is ripping apart baby formula packaging in front of me. JuanFe runs a child sponsorship program for particularly vulnerable children: things like diapers, formula and free medical care are provided until the age of five. Eunice notices my confusion:

“We take it out of the packaging so the family don’t sell it.”


Severely malnourished but managing a smile before a sleep.

Say what? I have an emaciated one-year-old that could pass for a newborn squirming in my arms. I am immediately furious. When six more hungry children emerge from outside, however, my anger dissipates. The aching reality is that selling a can of baby formula may feed all the children meager portions for the week.

It is in this realm of ostensible hopelessness that JuanFe Foundation creates such invaluable opportunities.


Catalina Escobar, who we affectionately call Cata, founded JuanFe in 2001 with the aim to improve the quality of life for teenage mothers and their children. In six years Catalina’s work reduced infant mortality in Cartagena by 81.2%. This is no small feat.


Cata and her girls. Utter love.

From the moment we arrive at the Foundation itself, Cata’s vibrancy is infectious and her passion is inspiring, although she paints a devastating picture:

“If you really want to be miserable in Colombia, you have to be a girl and you have to be poor”.

She gives us a tour. In the richly decorated nursery there are fifty-odd delicious babies rolling around happily. They grab my hair with chubby fingers, crawl over my lap, drool on my leg and generally send me into a baby-induced state of complete euphoria. It’s only after I’m wrenched away that I give thought to how important it is for teen mothers without an alternate support system to not be left behind. Affordable daycare may be a distant dream for many middle-class families in Australia, but here it is the difference between turning up to class or not. JuanFe provides this free of charge.


Daycare A.K.A Heaven

The technical skills taught reflect local industry demands. In a sparkling clean food lab we visit a hospitality class in progress. Three girls serve me up a plate of presentation-perfect vegetarian ratatouille, beaming with pride. Although I’m aware of six iPhones and one Canon EOS 70D pointed at me, I scoff it down ungracefully because it is that delicious.


Hospitality training.

Down the hall we visit classes covering hotel management, life skills and sexual health. A toddler is wriggling on a mat while another is being breastfed in the back of the room. These girls seem like natural mothers, or rather, mothers unafraid of the enormous task in front of them. It might be because they’re safe, or happy, or hopeful. They are staring at a way out, a way to break the cycle. This is the value of opportunity.


Health class’ little entertainer

A kind of catharsis occurs when we enter the beauty salon. A young girl tearfully recounts her story; devastatingly her baby didn’t make it and the hardest thing, she says, is watching the other girls nurse their children everyday. She could take the easy way out, the way that doesn’t constantly remind her of what she’s lost, but opportunity doesn’t come around so easily and at the tender age of fifteen she realizes that this one needs to be grasped with both hands. I finally shed a tear, not for her loss but for her strength.

Growing up I was taught that hard work would hold me in good stead for my future, and for a long time I thought this was universal. But hard work and success are only synonymous when they’re grounded in opportunity. JuanFe recognises this and offers girls the opportunity to tread a path different to what society has assigned them.


A class on hotel management, one of Cartagena’s biggest industries.

Completion of the program sees teen mothers placed in jobs or internships. There is opportunity for higher education, university even. Most importantly, what Catalina has created charges teen mothers as changemakers themselves – after all, they are learning from the best. JuanFe turns them into leaders and role models. They are to teach their families, their friends and their neighbours about responsible reproduction, nutrition and hygiene. They are to help break the cycle of teen motherhood and extreme poverty. That is the value of opportunity in a place where girls too often believe they are undeserving of anything more than the circumstances which they were born into.

A day with JuanFe taught me that opportunity is what what it takes to create heroines, and when you’re as passionate and unrelenting as Catalina, you can do this, hundreds of girls at a time.