09/20/2016 09:07 EDT | Updated 09/20/2016 09:16 EDT

This Is Canada's Opportunity To Improve Education For Refugees

Muhammad Hamed / Reuters
Syrian refugee children pose before the visit of actress Angelina Jolie to hold a news conference at Azraq refugee camp for Syrians displaced by conflict, near Al Azraq city, Jordan, September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau took the stage in New York and announced Canada's commitment to improving education opportunities for refugee children. Co-chairing a round table at the United Nations General Assembly's unprecedented High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants, the prime minister -- a former teacher himself -- emphasized that Canada is proud of its efforts to take in refugees, but also recognizes that it must do more.

Every child deserves a quality education, but refugee children, especially girls, are the most likely to be left behind. Over half of all refugees are children. Only 50 per cent of these children are able to attend primary school; 25 per cent make it to high school; and just one per cent of these students move on to colleges and universities.

The number of refugees and displaced people is now the highest it has been since WWII, and local education systems are strained to their limits. In places such as Jordan and Lebanon--which have taken in over 1.6 million Syrian refugees -- refugee students outnumber local students in the countries' public schools. One of the main challenges is a shortage of qualified teachers. Canada, with its reputation for excellent teacher training programs, is well placed to fill this gap.

For these children, education is not a luxury; it is a life-saving human right.

The world needs more teachers, but not just any teachers. We need teachers trained specifically to work within complex humanitarian and refugee situations. Refugee children have unique needs that many teachers are unprepared to address due to a lack of proper training. Many children have significant gaps in their education history, leaving them far behind their global peers.

Violence and conflict leave psychological scars. Girls face additional obstacles, including the threat of sexual violence. For many children, the classroom provides the only opportunity to learn about health and basic safety. For these children, education is not a luxury; it is a life-saving human right.

Canadian teacher training institutes can help meet this need, and the prime minister's call, by creating a new degree program, a Bachelor of Humanitarian Education. At least in Ontario, teachers colleges currently produce far more domestic teachers than the market can absorb, which suggests an opportunity to redirect resources. Universities that offer such a degree could re-allocate a number of enrollment positions for international students who are specifically interested in a program that prepares them to work as teachers within refugee settings, such as refugee camps or cities with high refugee populations.

The curriculum of a Bachelor of Humanitarian Education would include much more than the standard teacher training classes. It would provide future teachers with training in addressing the critical challenges facing displaced children, including child trauma; gender and sexual-based violence; human rights; health; and protection. It could also provide new teachers with courses in sustainable development, and -- of course -- critical language skills.

There are many global initiatives out there that invest in refugee education. Some, such as the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) offer scholarships to refugee students to attend colleges and universities abroad. Others, such as York University's Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) program, provide training to untrained teachers already working in the field. Our proposal for a Canadian Bachelor of Humanitarian Education degree complements these initiatives and provides Canada with an opportunity to lead on the world stage.

Think back to your own time in school. Think of your kids' teachers. For those of us fortunate enough to have been educated in Canada, chances are that at one point we or our children had a teacher who played a transformational role in our lives. Great teachers do that. With the proper training, these new humanitarian teachers could help to offer the children and youth displaced by conflict, war, violence, and natural disasters the chance to realize their full potential as individuals and ultimately live meaningful lives of dignity.

This blog was adapted from CIGI paper "Preparing New Teachers to Work with Refugee Students: Proposal for a Bachelor of Humanitarian Education Program" by Jacqueline Lopour and Andrew S. Thompson.

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