Our perspective on education and employment opportunities for refugees

Our perspective on education and employment opportunities for refugees

By Israr Ullah and Abdul Musawer

Life can be hard for many people but is often even harder when you a refugee. To be able to build a better future it is necessary to have skills, which can be achieved by acquiring education either through formal schooling or technical education. However, it is not always easy to get a stable education, especially when you have migrated from your home country. In this blog, we will share our perspectives of the key issues faced by Afghan refugees who want to access education and employment, as well as a story of a young Afghan refugee participant from the Voices of Refugee Youth research study.

The main issues faced by Afghan refugees who want to be educated and employed in Pakistan are the barriers to accessing the country’s education system (including university) and access to employment after graduation. One must navigate the complex landscape of the labour market when trying to get a stable job due to labour laws and restrictions placed on companies within the host country.

In addition, there is always the mountainous barrier of economic issues: for example, refugees might struggle to secure source of income due to inflation in the host country. Pakistan itself is going through a hard phase due economic instability, which causes lack of job opportunities for her own citizens that exerts additional pressure on refugees seeking jobs.

Afghan refugees have also never been in a comfortable position either at schools or workplaces. After they graduate from secondary school, they will have to support their families and pay their university tuition fees, no matter what they are studying. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan have reserved only a single quota seat for Afghan refugees in public universities; if they fail to secure the only seat, they will have to get admission as an international which is very costly. Private universities require a tough admission process and they are also costly. Even for refugees who have managed to graduate from university, the lack of job opportunities remains an important issue which needs to be resolved. As a result, most of the graduated refugees must work as a labourer to support their family members.

During our data collection for Voices of Refugee Youth, we have interviewed many young Afghan refugees who shared their life stories – many of these are related to the obstacles refugees have faced and continue facing while seeking a job. It is always a pleasure to hear from refugees because we share their griefs. Here is a story of one refugee’s search for employment, after sixteen years of education.

The story starts with us travelling to conduct data collection with young Afghan refugees in Pakistan. We started to look for a school in a refugee camp: then, travelling out of the camp for half an hour in a car where there was no one to be seen, we approached the school and found a huge number of students studying in their classes. The scenario was quite strange for us youth researchers – its sight was familiar of what we have been through.

During our period of data collection at this school, we interviewed a young refugee. He told us about the dreams he had for his country and his family. We asked him about whether he thinks these dreams or goals are achievable? His eyes became moist and held his tears back, which were readable; we understood him. As a refugee, it feels as though no one really cares if he is literate or illiterate as it makes little difference to his future opportunities. He described his efforts to obtain education. He would walk in the early morning for an hour in both the hot Pakistani summer and the rainy winter days to be able to learn for the future. The future which he is unsure about, but he can only hope and knows that his chances will be few.

He then went on telling us about his daily routine. After returning from school, he would eat at home and then leave for his job, collecting garbage (mainly dry bread) and then selling it to the people who need to feed their animals. If he is able to earn money that day, the family would be able to eat, else they would have to sleep hungry. Making ends meet is always hard for those refugees who live in a rural area.

While we have always heard that education is key to success, the story of this young refugee makes us question about what kind of education is needed? He tried very hard to attend school for sixteen years while also working to earn money for his family, but he still has little hope for the future. What more can hardworking refugees do when we complete secondary education but are unable to access opportunities?

Afghan refugees rarely have any opportunities to pursue education and employment goals within the society, and instead often need to be a labourer or a daily-wage earner to feed his or her loved ones. Refugees not only lack attention from policy-makers in host countries, but even alternative education (like, the vocational training provided by UNHCR) often results in the same end product. More work is needed to ensure that refugees can use their education and achieve their goals. Thus, collective efforts are required from the local and international bodies including the countries around the world: the aim is to save the generations who dream for a prosper future and yet have dreams shattered because of their refugee status.

In the words of British Somali poet, Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

Quote from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire: https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/home-warsan-shire

My experience of doing data collection

My experience of doing data collection

By Khatira Ahmadzai

As part of the Voices of Refugee Youth research study, I have undertaken data collection on three occasions. This has involved a survey with refugees at secondary school in Pakistan. Doing data collection was a great experience because I love to connect with people and have the opportunity to listen to their issues and try to solve them. We (the youth researchers) experienced many issues when we ourselves were secondary school students, and there was no one to ask us about our challenges of being Afghan refugee students in Pakistan. I have enjoyed taking on this role for the current students whom I have met during data collection.

One challenge we faced was accessing students while they were at school. On multiple occasions, we faced issues such as some schools not giving us permission to interview students. Some schools’ principals made the excuse that students were not interested to speak with us, preventing us from asking the students themselves.

A second challenge was contacting students. We found that many of the contact numbers of students were incorrect, due to them changing their mobile numbers since the previous data point. Similarly, we struggled with unfamiliar school names/locations; for two or three days we were looking for certain schools, and finally we found out that there do not exist any schools with this specific name.

However, I really enjoyed data collection because we found out more interesting information about students’ issues and shared that with the rest of the research team. I particularly enjoyed working in a team. I was collecting data in a team of three members (me, Zainab, and Rozina). This was beneficial, because whenever any problem came to us, such as dealing appropriately with principals and students, we solved that as a team. Therefore we felt secure and also we enjoyed visiting different schools.

Data collection also helped us to realise some issues of Afghan refugees students which we didn’t know before. This included that they struggle with not having proper classrooms or professionally trained teachers.

In summary, there were some good experiences and some challenging experiences of data collection, as I have mentioned above. I enjoyed the experience overall, and look forward to sharing more about the experience of Afghan refugees in the future.

My story so far

My story so far

By Noor Ullah

I have been part of the Voices of Refugee Youth research study for the last 2.5 years. This blog outlines my story as a youth researcher so far.

The story goes back to the time when I had no idea about the research study. I first got to know about it through a close friend: he told me that there was a work opportunity with a research organisation based in the UK. I decided to apply to it for experience and monetary benefits, and later got to know that the role offered much more than this. So I applied and got short-listed, had an interview and passed the interview as well.

At the beginning, the instructors came and we (the group of youth researchers in Pakistan) started our initial two weeks training regarding the study, the objectives, our roles and the final outputs.

During this time, we learnt more about the study’s importance. We discussed that education research can empower research stakeholders through the data it produces: with the findings, it can better clarify our purposes to teach, lead and spend effectively, improve processes and priorities when introducing change, and also make informed decisions, which ultimately leads to making a very positive impact in education. Moreover, through better education we can support young people in society, and these persons have the potential to make decisions that will ultimately impact communities – both locally and globally – in a very positive way.

During the training, the instructors were very helpful and open to ideas. They were interested to hear from us what we refugees have in mind, welcoming new ideas and suggestions. After the training sessions for Unit 1 and learning the foundational research skills, we were askedoput these skills to practice. We visited different schools and universities, conducted a survey and interviewed participating students, listening to their stories and challenges they face. Subsequently, we have had two other training units and data collection points, DP2 (Data Point 2) and DP3. These all built on previous skills that we learned.

We spoke to a lot of students in different secondary schools and universities during data collection. Through this study, we got to know more about my fellow Afghans students’ experiences, heard their voices, and learnt about the challenges they face. These difficulties include barriers within the admission process, poor quality education, or a lack of learning resources and tools.

However, simply hearing these voices is not enough: conveying and building solid evidence and presenting this evidence to decision makers is important. That is what we – the youth researchers and Jigsaw/REUK in partnership with UNHCR – are doing, to make sure the voices of the voiceless are heard.

It was always my dream to make a positive impact and contribution to the Afghan refugee society where I belong, but I never had the required knowledge to know where to start from. The Voices of Refugee Youth study has really paved the way for me: what better way than education, through research and a proper understanding of Afghan students’ needs, can help in making that childhood dream of creating a positive impact and change for our war affected community a reality. I am therefore very excited to be part of this research study.

The practical experience of being a youth researcher

The practical experience of being a youth researcher

By Khalid Khan

Since September 2018, I have been working as a youth researcher with Jigsaw and REUK on the Voices of Refugee Youth research study, in partnership with UNHCR. This study aims to investigate post-primary education for refugee youth. 

As youth researchers, we have a central role in the research study. We have received training in research methods, first conducted in-person at the UNHCR Compound in Peshawar, and then conducted online during the Covid-19 pandemic. Applying this training, we have then led data collection, conducting surveys and interviews with Afghan refugee students from different universities & schools within Pakistan (specifically in Peshawar, in the region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Up to this point, we have completed three data collection points and received the same number of training units (with one left to complete this year).

For me, being a youth researcher has been a brand new experience, unlike any other, and I have gained so much over the past three years. The training sessions, provided before data collection, were a new experience for me, as it was my first ever experience in the role of a youth researcher. I am in no doubt that I have learnt a lot about research; for example, I have come to know about the difference between qualitative and quantitative research, and have learnt about research ethics in detail. Also, in the role of a youth researcher I come to know that one has to be flexible for new experiences and challenges. Collecting data has provided some challenges: we have had to deal with people of different cultures, languages and religions. Therefore, I have learnt that while collecting data you need to be understandable and to be clear about the purpose of the research to the participants.

The experience has also taught me several things about the unique role of a youth researcher. Youth researchers should be authentic and realistic as they play the role as a liaison between refugees in their community and stakeholders from the rest of the world. This is because youth researchers record the voices of other young refugees and represent them to the rest of the world – they are therefore a bridge between the refugees and the rest of the research community. Hence, I believe that if one is in the role of a youth researcher, he or she should keep in mind that we are chosen to speak on the behalf of young refugees; now it’s our responsibility to represent their voices in an actual and genuine way to help refugee youth have access to the world to deliver their voices and messages. Being in this role has therefore furnished my communication and writing skills, including how to communicate formally with different people and then transcribe the conversation.

Finally, I believe that a youth researcher has a vital role in the research process, because the overall credibility of the report is dependent on the sources and quality of reporting by the youth researcher during data collection. This has shown me, as a youth researcher, the importance of being realistic, clear and to the point. Research can be valuable not only for the researchers but for other stakeholders (including students, teachers and organisations). Therefore, in my experience as a youth researcher, I have learned the value of good quality of data and the way in which youth researchers can hold a unique role in the research process.

A personal account from data collection for Data Point 3

A personal account from data collection for Data Point 3

By Asma Rabi

On a scorching hot summer day, labour workers held bricks in their hands in a stiff and stinky atmosphere, under the burning sun, to construct a house in Peshawar. It was the month of July. The wind was silent and motionless. The trees and plants looked stationary beneath the sun. The birds were all gasping for breath. Under this blistering heat, several labourers were working hard. 

Muneer (1) continued to work despite the unbearable heat, his face and body covered in sweat, along with other workers. Muneer is 19  years old. He is an Afghan refugee in Pakistan, and aspires to become a doctor as a way to change his future. He recently graduated from school, but despite these twelve years of education, he is working as a labourer in the hot month of July.

Muneer is one of the students participating in the Voices of Refugee Youth research study: a study tracking education transitions to build the evidence base for post-primary education for refugee youth in Pakistan and Rwanda. As an Afghan refugee studying in Pakistan, he is one of over 1000 students who have participated in the research study’s surveys and interviews at several points over the last two year, following his journey through education and employment. 

During the third data point of the research study (DP3), I called Muneer twice. On the first occasion, he picked up his phone and said that he is working and cannot speak to me right now. I called him again the next day at the same time: his response was the same. This time I managed to ask him where he was working; he named a place near where I live, and I decided to meet him in person to complete the survey. 

When we met, Muneer spoke about his aims and ambitions of becoming a doctor. However, because he is an undocumented refugee in Pakistan, he is unable to get a scholarship to go to university.

There are many more children like Muneer who want to change their future. Instead of being labour workers and holding bricks, they want to hold books and pens. Unfortunately, their future employment aspirations and dreams are being crushed by the cruel hands of destiny. According to the latest statistics by UNHCR, the number of refugees across the world has increased over the last decade. In 2010, it was estimated that 41 million people were forcibly displaced, while the figures rose to 82 million by 2020 (UNHCR Flagship report, 2022).

Pakistan hosts a massive population of refugees, on top of the other challenges it faces. There are 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan (IOM Migration Data Portal, 2021) and, as of 2017 estimations, a further 600,000 to one million undocumented Afghan refugees (UNHCR, 2017). This makes Pakistan host to one of the world’s largest refugee populations. However, there is an urgent need to systematically address the unregistered refugee population in Pakistan. Hundreds of Afghan refugee youth are unregistered and undocumented, which therefore means that they cannot continue on to university. This issue is holding hundreds of youth from continuing their education in their host communities. 

“I have a dream of becoming a doctor and treat[ing] people; I wish to hold a stethoscope instead of these bricks.” Despite all these challenges, Muneer is still hopeful. He is not alone among the hundreds of refugees striving for their future and seeking to continue their education. However, documentation remains a key barrier to achieving this dream.

(1) The name has been changed to preserve the anonymity of this refugee. 

Reflections on the impact of Covid-19 for refugees and education

Reflections on the impact of Covid-19 for refugees and education

By Umer Farooq

This blog is on the topic of education and the refugee community, especially those Afghan refugees living in Pakistan who have been affected by Covid-19. During the pandemic, the whole world economy has suffered a lot and the education sector, in particular, has been hit hard. The lives and education of the refugees that have been affected by the pandemic in Pakistan are explored below, drawing on my own experience.

Covid-19 was clearly a big issue for all countries, but was especially hard for those countries that do not have the necessary resources and proper hospital facilities. The government of Pakistan took many steps to control the pandemic, like a ‘smart lockdown’ in some areas and ‘complete lockdown’ in others. Educational and religious institutions were also shut down and the government later made various rules to control the virus. The main challenge facing the policymakers of under-developed countries was how to implement an online education system, because such a pandemic had never happened before and education systems were not prepared. A second challenge was that people who got sick from Covid-19 rarely went to the hospital, thinking it was a minor illness and they could cure it themselves. As a result, the disease spread further due to a lack of awareness among the people. More education was needed to prevent this from happening.

The past two years have been an especially difficult time for the refugee community which has been living in camps in Pakistan for almost forty years. Most of them work as laborers, earning for their children daily to support their children’s stomachs and their education expenses. For those who are educated in the refugee community, there are few formal employment opportunities in Pakistan because this is a poor country where it is very difficult to seek employment.

When Covid-19 started, there were restrictions on movement and leaving the house here. Due to this, educational activities and employment stopped and people became unemployed. In the case of refugee laborers, their employment completely stopped and their livelihood became very difficult. Those in formal employment did not suffer so much, but the process of cutting the salaries of private-sector employees started and a lot of people lost their jobs because the private institutions couldn’t afford their jobs further.

At that time when Covid-19 started, I was working in a private college as a lecturer. Colleges and schools closed, so we also sat at home. Then our college owner told us that the college could not give us a salary. So we started living on the savings we had accumulated.

The quality of education also deteriorated due to Covid-19 and the majority of primary and secondary education was affected. Universities responded to the pandemic by starting online education, but only those university students who live in cities benefited from this because the internet system works there. Rural students, however, were deprived of getting this education because in most of the villages of Pakistan the internet system is not functional.

This blog therefore summarises how Covid-19 has been affecting the lives of refugees and their education in Pakistan. The refugee community has provided help to those very poor members of their community and UNHCR has also given 12,000 rupees of emergency cash assistance to the poorest families.(1) However, due to the economic pressures of the pandemic, many refugees face the risk of never returning to school, undoing years of progress made in education for refugees, in Pakistan and around the world.

(1) UNHCR, 2020. https://www.unhcr.org/pk/6522-most-vulnerable-refugee-families-to-receive-rs-12000-emergency-cash-assistance.html