A President's Reflections

A broader view: Why refugee safety and security must include access to education and economic opportunity

Posted on June 30, 2022

By Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University

Last week, we celebrated the strength and courage of refugees on World Refugee Day, at a moment when the refugee crisis has been thrust into focus with millions fleeing the war in Ukraine, creating the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. Now more than ever, there is growing awareness that forced displacement can affect anyone, and that everyone – regardless of where they come from – has the right to seek safety and be treated with dignity and respect.  

For the more than 80 million refugees worldwide escaping conflict, persecution, climate crises, or human rights abuses, safety is paramount.  But safety is not enough. I challenge the communities and countries receiving refugees as well as refugee-serving institutions to look beyond just physical safety and recognize that true long-term security must include access to inclusive education and employment opportunities. We must safeguard the health and well-being of displaced people, but we must also safeguard their ability to hope and not merely survive.

That’s why in 2017, SNHU launched the Global Education Movement (GEM) to create pathways for displaced students around the world to pursue high-quality, affordable higher education. Today, SNHU GEM is the first large-scale, online learning program providing accredited, internationally recognized associate and bachelor’s degrees to refugees. What began with one site in Rwanda has expanded to 10 sites in five countries in Africa and the Middle East, with more than 3,500 students and alumni.

I had the honor of speaking with five inspiring SNHU GEM students and alumni from across Africa and the Middle East during a virtual roundtable last week. Our discussion was a reminder that while talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not, and refugees face tremendous obstacles pursuing education, seeking work and even moving freely in their host countries.  

SNHU GEM’s World Refugee Day roundtable took place on Thursday, June 23. Watch the recording.

When refugees have access to markets, they create opportunity and economic returns for the whole community. But those displaced from their homes face significant barriers to the marketplace – lacking access to employment, credit lines, and education that could equip them with the skills and credentials to find a job or start their own business.

Education has the power to level the playing field. Nearly half of all refugee children are out of school. And at the tertiary level, just 5% of refugees have access to higher education.

Our courageous GEM students navigating higher education as refugee learners exemplify perseverance and strength that deserves to be celebrated year-round. Their personal experiences are deeply moving, but what stays with me most is the undeniable spark each student possesses. Through higher education, they seek to transform not only their own lives, but the community around them. I’ve seen firsthand that when we empower refugees, their spark can turn into fire and spread.

On World Refugee Day and every day, SNHU reaffirms its commitment to our incredible students, and to expanding access to transformative education for refugees so they can attain economic security and create opportunities for themselves and others.

But this work is bigger than any single institution. I urge other refugee-serving institutions as well as my colleagues in higher education to join this movement. Together, we can create a world where higher education meets all students – particularly the most vulnerable – where they are and empowers them to succeed and uplift those around them.

Whoever. Wherever. Whenever. Everyone has the right to education.

Meet the five SNHU GEM panelists:

SNHU GEM alumnus Agnes Burume

After fleeing from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Rwanda with her family, Agnes Burume was determined to continue her education. In 2019, she completed her bachelor’s degree in management with a concentration in logistics and operations in Rwanda, where SNHU GEM partners with Kepler. She now works full time as an SNHU GEM Project Manager. 

Syrian refugee and SNHU grad Alnarjes profile headshot

Alnarjes Harba is a Syrian refugee and the first Middle Eastern graduate from SNHU GEM. After escaping the war in Syria at age 12, she graduated from high school in Lebanon. She was determined to continue her education, but her refugee status prevented her from attending Lebanese universities. Through SNHU GEM’s partnership with the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research, Alnarjes earned her bachelor’s degree in 2021 and is currently pursuing her dream of attending medical school. 

SNHU refugee student Glory profile headshot

Glory (Lukambo) Luundo is a Congolese refugee living in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. Because of SNHU GEM’s partnership with Jesuit Refugee Service in Kenya, Glory is now able to pursue a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management with a concentration in global perspectives. In addition to his academic work, Glory leads the award-winning Fishing in the Desert Project that is fighting malnutrition and hunger in the camp. His Fishing in the Desert team won the United Nations World Food Programme’s first NextGen East African Innovators Programme competition in 2021. 

SNHU refugee graduate Jackson Habimfura

While living in Rwanda’s Kiziba Refugee Camp, Jackson Habimfura found a pathway to higher education and a career in IT through SNHU GEM’s partnership with Kepler. In 2018, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management with a concentration in logistics and operations. He now works full-time as a contractor for the SNHU Technology Help Desk in Rwanda and started a program in the Kiziba Refugee Camp that equips refugees with programming skills. 

SNHU GEM student headshot Julvie Mumangi

Julvie Mumangi was seven when her family left the Democratic Republic of Congo, after her father – a journalist – became a target of the government. Upon completing high school in South Africa, Julvie wanted to continue her education, but was prevented from enrolling in local universities due to her refugee status. Thanks to SNHU GEM’s partnership with the Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town, Julvie is currently working toward a bachelor’s in healthcare management and hopes to pursue a master’s in public health. 

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