By Caitlin-Marie Ward
August 8, 2020 — While all students, parents, teachers and administrators are affected by the coronavirus, certain populations have been disproportionately impacted. Although they may be some of the worst affected, refugees rarely factor into discussions around education in the era of COVID-19. Whether they reside in camps or in communities, refugees often live in cramped and crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible. Basic amenities like soap and water can be hard to come by. The digital divide is even more pronounced for refugees who struggle to access the internet. With over half of all school-aged refugee children not enrolled in school, coronavirus threatens to turn a pre-existing crisis into an unmitigated disaster.
Patience Mhlanga, a former refugee from Zimbabwe, knows firsthand the difference a quality education can make in the life of a refugee child. “We predicted life would be challenging [in the refugee camp], but my parents made sure that we attended school no matter what. They understood the value of education. Sometimes there weren’t enough benches to sit on at school, but if the brain was fed with education, a shortage of benches wasn’t an issue,” says Patience.
Patience and her family fled political persecution in their native Zimbabwe in 2002. Her parents were outspoken critics of then-President Robert Mugabe, a man who served as president from 1987 until he was ousted by members of his own party in coup in 2017. As a result, her family was subjected to violent threats and forced to flee to Zambia where they lived in a refugee camp for five years.
While a refugee camp in Zambia may seem like a world away, the hostility and xenophobia that Patience’s family experienced is echoed in our political rhetoric today. “[The local population] viewed refugees as a threat to their resources,” recalls Patience. “While in the camp, we watched as many resources meant for the refugees were stolen by host country nationals. To some, our stories of suffering were taken lightly, as if we were making up stories.”
One resource that no one could take away from her was the books at the community library run by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). Although refugees were prohibited from working outside the camp, Patience’s mother worked at the JRS library. This provided her family much-needed income and gave her children free access to books. “My siblings and I often visited the library to read books to improve our English,” says Patience. “Since there were few resources available to refugees in the camp, the community library at JRS gave refugees a spark of hope to dream bigger. The JRS community library proved to me how much JRS valued education for refugees.”
The process took over two years, but eventually Patience and her family were resettled to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2007. While her life changed, Patience retained her thirst for knowledge. After graduating from Fairfield University, Patience went on to pursue a master’s degree in Theology from Duke University. She is currently a student at George Washington University where she is pursuing a second master’s degree in Public Health. She also worked as a math teacher with AmeriCrops and served in the Peace Corps in Zambia.
“My former life as a refugee inspired my career choice and I am excited to one day work in the field of international development and public health, particularly in developing countries and fragile contexts,” says Patience.
As a former refugee living outside her country of origin, Patience has come to see how education is a two-way street. When asked how she felt about the reduced number of refugees admitted to the United States in recent years and overall hostility facing refugees and migrants in the U.S., Patience says, “I think people have this unhealthy fear of refugees that is often driven by false assumptions. Correcting these false narratives can begin with educating people about who refugees are and what they are not. I think once we see refugees as our brothers and sisters, we can begin to reduce this unhealthy fear.” Patience sees a particular role for Catholics and Christians in this work. “Personally, I am inspired by my Catholic faith to show active compassion and Christ-like love towards others. I believe that Christ gave us life on Earth to live with others, especially those who are suffering. When we see our lives as communal gifts to be shared, it becomes very natural to love our neighbors. Refugees are our neighbors too.”
Not since World War II have there been so many refugees and displaced people in the world. As evidence by Patience’s life, refugees have much to offer to their adopted communities. For this reason, it is important that governments, nonprofits, and private organizations respond to the call of the UNHCR to make education for refugee children a higher priority. As people from the developed world, we may think we are the ones providing the education, but in the end, it may be us who has the most to learn.