Nationalism Turns Away People in Real Need

I moved back to Washington, D.C., this summer, after eight years in Jakarta.  I felt guilty saying goodbye to my refugee friends, knowing that my move was by choice and fueled by good things: a chance to be near my extended family, a new job for my husband, the pull of home.  I wasn’t forced to leave by events beyond my control. I wasn’t fleeing. I chose to go home.

Pilgrims on New Shores

Looking for Freedom and Missing Mom’s Homemade Meals

In my home country, the U.S., people everywhere are now packing and looking at map apps to figure out which route to their relatives’ has the least traffic. Thursday is Thanksgiving in America, a time when people do two simple things: we gather with family and we stop to reflect on what we’re thankful for. And we eat a ton of savory food and watch American football, but I won’t dwell on the things I miss (too much).

This week Indonesia celebrates Teacher Appreciation Day. My Indonesian friends are good at keeping things social and supportive, and they love food. If we went back to Maryland for Thanksgiving–which we can’t, because it’s too far–we’d have to bring back some snacks for our friends in Jakarta. My husband repeatedly forgets to bring back oleh-oleh (tasty treats from where he has traveled) for his colleagues, and they gently tease him about that. I guess it’s a little hard to travel with pumpkin-pecan pie, but if we were going home for Thanksgiving, we’d have to bring back a little piece of home to share with our friends.

But many of our teachers can’t go home–not because it’s too far, but because they’re not welcome or not safe. As with the original Thanksgiving feasters, America’s pilgrims, our refugee teachers would be in danger if they returned to Afghanistan or Iran, places that are unstable at best and violent at worst. Governments can’t protect their citizens in some cases, or torture, imprison or do worse to them in others.

Two-thirds of girls in Afghanistan still can’t go to school; they weave garments, beg or pick trash to bring in meager cash for their families. Even among boys, and even 16 years after the U.S.-led military intervention ousted the Taliban 34 percent are illiterate, according to Human Rights Watch. Going home is not only unsafe, there is not much of a life or a future there. Of course, this line of thinking skips over the fact that refugees in Jakarta don’t have passports or money, so they can’t travel home even if they were welcome. For some, it has been five lonely years since they last had a homemade meal with their mothers and fathers.
In spite of their painful pasts, they are doing everything in their power to not only survive in this foreign land, Indonesia, but to heal and, remarkably, give back to those who have less than they do. Our refugee teachers who are educated or who have learned English at Roshan give back abundantly.

They spend hours (400, to be precise, collectively) preparing lessons, meeting with co-teachers to refine review sessions, assembling materials to do an art project with children, sitting with a crying child on the grass to comfort him or her, or enthusiastically explaining how to calculate the area of a triangle. They problem solve, scrub bathroom floors, organize enrollment and registration, organize students to put on fabulous performances at end of year parties, and share their own food when a student has nothing to eat. These are some of most generous, resilient people I have known.

I am thankful to know them and I’m inspired by them. That sounds cliche and does not adequately capture how truly moved I am by their grit and generosity. People think we who try to support Roshan do this to help. In truth, my refugee friends have taught me far more about what’s important in life than I have taught them. Our Indonesian teachers and expat volunteers–all of whom also pour hours of love, talent and devotion into Roshan–have told me the same thing. “I thought I could maybe be a blessing to refugees by coming to help,” they say. “But honestly, I have been far more blessed by being part of this community than I contributed.”

Roshan’s refugee teachers have struggled for basic rights–safety, education, freedom–yet they teach others how to live with generosity and good humor. They seem to have have arrived on strange new shores after enduring plenty of hardships but, far from home, look to the future with optimism and hope. That is something to be thankful for indeed.


Finding Peace in Diversity and Collaboration

Today, September 21, is the International Day of Peace. It’s a day set aside to collectively pause and reflect on what we are doing or can do to bring people together, a timely need in today’s fractious world. As the new director of Roshan Learning Center, it offers an opportunity for me to consider how we at Roshan promote peace.

It doesn’t take long to see that Roshan Learning Center is truly a community-based program. First arriving two months ago, I was impressed to see that the refugee community is involved at all levels of the organization as managers, students, teachers, advocates and community liaisons. What is even more impressive is that these individuals are giving their time as volunteers. I was curious to know just how much time they give as volunteers, so I calculated their hours and was surprised to see that individuals from the refugee community give over 400 hours each week to keeping Roshan running. This is a staggering number. And this is just for those who are filling official roles; it doesn’t include those who help as chaperones, translators and substitutes.

Refugee service, however, is only part of how Roshan makes such a strong impact. What makes Roshan truly unique is the refugee community’s collaboration with local and international communities in Jakarta. Roshan has Indonesian staff and volunteers helping as teachers, administrators and community liaisons. Additionally, over 20 volunteers from the international community–Australia, India, the U.S., the Netherlands–help as English teachers, soft skills teachers, administrators and mentors for refugee teachers. This widely diverse staff offer students the chance to learn and grow in a truly diverse, supportive, and global community.

This collaboration was on full display this past week as the parents of our preschool students met with teachers to discuss the progress of their children. I sat in on some of these parent-teacher meetings and was struck by the range of individuals involved, each playing their part to make sure our students are served well. I watched as Arianne, an experienced teacher from Indonesia, shared with a father about what his daughter Zahra has been learning in class and on the playground. Hanifa, a manager from Afghanistan, helped translate and share ideas with the father about how he can help his daughter succeed in school. Aline, a teaching assistant from the Netherlands shared about class learning goals for English. Finally, Zahra’s parent gave some tips on things Zahra loves to do at home, which might engage her further in the classroom as well.

This kind of ongoing, international collaboration provides an extraordinary set of opportunities for the children at Roshan. A given student gets to learn Bahasa Indonesia, the national language in Indonesia. She has multiple adults supporting her to learn English and make progress in her English literacy skills as well, while also learning to write in Farsi, her home language. She has help from a range of supportive adults to decode the mysterious and diverse cultural expectations surrounding her. Moreover, with her parent’s direct involvement, she receives the support she needs at home to grow and learn.

This seems like a remarkable way to promote peace. Working together as international colleagues and respecting a variety of viewpoints, deepening understanding across the cultures, classes and age groups that comprise our student body, and strengthening ties between teachers and families are fundamental starting points for promoting peace.

The future of refugee children is full of unknowns, but with experiences in a welcoming, diverse environment, they’re becoming equipped to thrive regardless of where they may land. As the newest member of the Roshan team, I am thrilled to see this happening already and look forward to contributing my part in this uniquely collaborative community.


Roshan Welcomes New Director


The entire Roshan community is pleased to extend our warmest welcome Brandon Baughn as the new Director of Roshan Learning Center.

Prior to moving with his family to Jakarta in July 2017, he worked in educational development in Northern Pakistan for over 8 years. During his time in Pakistan, he worked as program manager for a nomadic education program, as well as conducting research in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on multilingual education, nomadic education and minority perspectives on education.

Most recently, Brandon worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Seattle as a program specialist for their New Roots and Youth programs and as a grant writer for IRC’s national office.

He holds a Master of Arts in International Educational Development from Teachers College at Columbia University (New York City, U.S.). He loves to travel and is excited to explore some of the many islands in Indonesia with his wife and three children.

The entire Roshan community is pleased to extend our warmest welcome Brandon Baughn as the new Director of Roshan Learning Center.

Prior to moving with his family to Jakarta in July 2017, he worked in educational development in Northern Pakistan for over 8 years. During his time in Pakistan, he worked as program manager for a nomadic education program, as well as conducting research in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on multilingual education, nomadic education and minority perspectives on education.

Most recently, Brandon worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Seattle as a program specialist for their New Roots and Youth programs and as a grant writer for IRC’s national office.

He holds a Master of Arts in International Educational Development from Teachers College at Columbia University (New York City, U.S.). He loves to travel and is excited to explore some of the many islands in Indonesia with his wife and three children.

World Refugee Day through the Eyes of a Child

At Roshan Learning Center, we are thrilled to have global attention on refugees on World Refugee Day.  Here, every day is refugee day for staff and students.

For Roshan students such as Efran, whose favorite superhero is Superman, or Zayna who is goal is to be a good big sister, it doesn’t matter if it is June 20 or January 20.  For them, and the more than 11 million children globally who are refugees, what matters is having a safe place to play, engaging activities, especially school, healthy parents and relatives, and reliable meals and shelter.  More than half of refugee children have no school to go to.

For adults, though, June 20 is an important reminder to support and advocate for students like Efran and Zayna.

These children and their peers count on adults to speak on their behalf to elected and community leaders, to donate funds and supplies to advocacy organizations, to welcome the newly arrived, to offer pro bono professional skills, or find other ways to help immigrant families, such as providing needed rides or school supplies.

Such advocacy is vital, because as any refugee can tell you, the invisibility of refugee life adds to the struggle of finding sanctuary and acceptance.  In a big city like Jakarta, most people —Indonesians and international aid agency workers alike —-have no idea they have refugees as neighbors (more than 5,000 in the Jakarta area alone).  That’s true in many places across the world where asylum seekers sit and wait as governments and organizations determine where they may live, whether they may work or go to school.  The wait and related depression and boredom from idleness can take years, and often in crowded and unhealthy conditions.

In the meantime, children such as Erfan or Zayna don’t have the luxury of putting childhood on hold.  They have eating, growing, playing and learning to do today.

So here’s a tribute to the resilient refugee children in Indonesia and globally.  We encourage you to welcome them, support them, and advocate on their behalf on June 20 and year-round.  After all, their future is our future too.

At Roshan Learning Center,  you can help support a refugee by sponsoring their education costs, which are roughly $50 a month or $600 a year.  The amount may be low but return on the investment is incalculable.

Roshan Students Visit Indonesian Children in Hospital

Since its inception, the life blood of Roshan has been the kindness and generosity of others willing to serve the refugee community in Indonesia. As the center grows and changes, we see the limitless capacity of the refugees to serve one another.

They also serve others, in keeping with the top value promoted at Roshan, “Do good for others.” A few months ago, a small group of students from my English class at Roshan, where I volunteer, served both the American Women’s Association (AWA) and local Indonesian children in Fatmawati Hospital by delivering gifts and good cheer.

The AWA does a monthly delivery of hygiene supplies and small gifts for children in the hospital, but this particular month they had difficulty finding the volunteers needed for delivery. A group of six teenage students from Roshan stepped in and made the most of the opportunity to give back to their host country.

It also felt personal for the students, bringing back memories of loved ones left behind in Afghanistan. “It reminds me of my little brother and sister while I was talking with them,” said Mustafa, who left his parents and younger siblings behind in his journey to Indonesia. The important connection between age groups is universal and healing, I realized.

The teenagers expressed the hesitation and concern you would expect when visiting sick children in a hospital using a language you don’t speak well. But they quickly overcame their hesitation and made the most of the opportunity to make children happy. Student Ali said, “It was so great to meet them and give them a gift and make them happy and [put a] smile on their faces. I hope they will get well soon. Also I hope I become rich and [I will] make hospitals for free.”

The Roshan students were kind, engaging and upbeat as they met over 50 children and their families. They also recognized the privilege of being the one to give instead of receive. “Today was a precious day for me. I really had an awesome feeling when I was giving the presents for kids. I felt proud of myself,” said John.

Being able to give is indeed a joy.

The Roshan students spread a heartfelt joy in the hospital that reminded me that no matter what people’s situation or what they have endured, at the heart of humanity, we find goodness.

Roshan a Winner in Robotics Competition

A robot somewhat in the shape of a bulldozer but not bigger than the size of man’s palm whirred around a circle of plastic balls on a flat white table. The robot scooped and shoved a majority of balls toward one edge of the table and a cheer went up from the three team members, “Yeah!”

This is the second annual robotics challenge organized by the Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) robotics club, called JIS NXT GEN. Kevin Sisjayawan, David Hartong, Yadan Noerdin, and other students learn under the tutelage of Mr. Detwiler, the Robofest event creator and the club advisor.
The JIS students also teach. Every Monday afternoon for the last few terms, Roshan secondary students have ridden the bus across South Jakarta to take Robotics classes at the JIS Cilandak high school campus. They learn how to think logically, create clear and specific commands, and work as a team.

This week, the Roshan students showed just how much they had learned.

The Robofest competition included 12 groups of three to four members each, including two teams from Roshan. The challenge was to successfully command a robot to move as many balls as possible from the middle of the table to one side. To do this required five to six hours of building and programming.



The team whose robot successfully moved the greatest number of balls won. Congratulations to JIS sophomores Jingtao, Mengzhen, Kerby and Nick.

Mr. Detwiler said the event provided “more fun than humans should be allowed to have.”

The Roshan students would likely agree. One of the two Roshan teams–Mustafa, Armin A. and John–came in second place, beating their own JIS teachers and Robotics Club Officers David and Bagas. The other Roshan team–Shirafzal, Abdul Ghafur and Armin F.–received the Isaac Asimov Award. Asimov, considered the father of robotic philosophy, would have been proud, and so are we. Well done, Roshan!

Author’s note: Special thanks to Mr. Detwiler, Mr. Varnham, Ms. Devitt, and all the JIS Robotics Club members for inviting Roshan to this fabulous event and for your ongoing teaching and support. Thank you Mr. Naser Aran for your Roshan supervision.

What a Coin Is Worth

What a Coin Is Worth

Mahmud* was counting his hard-earned gold-covered coins at a toy booth at “Roshan Market,” a makeshift flea market that our teachers created for primary students. He saw a flashy toy he wanted to purchase with those coins. At another booth, three girls were competing to get the one and only Barbie doll available at the market.

No Apple Pie but Plenty of Love

Sometimes it seems like I never learn that there are only 12 months in a year. Every year around this time I realize that Christmas is just around the corner and I’m completely unprepared, as if it’s a surprise that November is here again. All of a sudden there is scrambling to decide on holiday plans and work out logistics, to make good on vague gift ideas, to find extra pockets of time and money for end of year concerts, conferences, parties, and writing Christmas cards. And I haven’t even made my Thanksgiving pies yet.

In my better moments, however, I know that so much of what we think we want is a mirage. What is real and important so often is already within reach. Working with refugees is a good reminder to keep things in perspective.

When I ask refugees what they want, they don’t say “I’d love a new 32-inch flatscreen TV,” or “J. Crew has a new pair of suede ankle-strap heels that are super cute.” Even though they have so little, they know what’s really important and what to reach for. They want to be with their loved ones and have the essentials: a home, food and water, and education. These are the needs that are real and important.

This is not to say they don’t have material wants. Mostaba, age 7, asked for a toy car. A single toy car would be tremendous. Erfan wants a stuffed animal in the shape of a large minion. Kimya wants butterfly stickers and paper. Mostafa wants a scientific calculator. But these material desires are so small.

Americans and Canadians have a special tradition of looking for ways to be thankful in November with the holiday of Thanksgiving. In this spirit, some teachers and I asked our refugee students what they are thankful for right now. Here are some of their answers:

“I am thankful to have a friend here.”
“I am thankful to all this school’s teachers who teach our kids and interact with them with patience and kindness.”
“I am thankful to find this opportunity to improve my English and thankful for my teachers trying their best although we have different languages.”
“I am thankful to all the people who help us to rent a home monthly.”
“I am thankful for giving the parents the opportunity to attend English classes which is excellent and is appreciated.” “I am thankful for the discipline and enthusiasm [at school].”
“I am thankful to be safe here.”
“Thank you for books.”
“Thank you for the doll, I love it. Thank you for the food. Thank you guys. I love it.”

When I think about what I’m most thankful for, it’s my family and my community. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S. and I would be lying if I said I’m not homesick for Diane’s green bean casserole and Craig’s apple pie and watching other people watch football on TV. Yes, I even miss watching other people watch football. I miss the camaraderie of people comparing stuffing recipes and gearing up for the road trip to see family. I miss watching kids kick up piles of golden red leaves on the sidewalk.

But I don’t feel forgotten or left out; quite the opposite. I feel how much love people are pouring into us at Roshan. I feel the encouragement with every donation of hard-earned money that could be spent elsewhere. I feel the shared joy when loved ones cheer for us to reach the next milestone at the learning center. I feel the concern when a friend who moved back to New Zealand asks me about people she once knew at the learning center. I feel the connection when a former refugee now in Paris raises money at her school for us. I feel the sense of community when a church back home puts together money to help us pay for next year’s books.

I am so thankful to be part of this diverse, global community. I love it. It’s a joy and a privilege to be part of something this good–so far from perfect, but somehow perfectly good. I am thankful for every single person who has cheered for us, donated to us, raised money for us, visited us, and encouraged us. We couldn’t run the learning center without every one of you creating this net with us. Thank you.

The U.S. Election: Should We Fear Immigrants?

The recent election results in the United States have provoked great anxiety among many in the United States and around the world. Many are afraid and uncertain about a future under a president who has made racist, xenophobic, and sexist remarks.  Yet Mr. Trump’s supporters have also been afraid.  Mr. Trump ran largely on an anti-immigrant platform. The fact that he won reveals in part a fear of immigrants, change, and an uncertain future.

This fear is worth examining because the U.S. can’t be a nation that leads well if it is nation that is afraid.  One major fear is for citizens’ safety.  Another is jobs and costs. But it may be that we should remember the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, who said during another hard time in America’s history, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Fear of Violence and Terrorism

The mother of four children who asked me last week if we could reduce her $1 school fees per month because she can’t afford them is not interested in politics, she just wants a safe place to live and a way for her young children to learn to read and count. A young man in our program was a journalist who exposed some of Iran’s corrupt and illegal anti-environmental practices in a city newspaper.  His co-writer was put in jail.  He fled for Indonesia and was recently resettled to a third country, where he continues to have no love for his government, to say the least.  Another young, man named Farhad, 24, had to abruptly gave up his career as a national professional soccer player because his brother was killed by the Taliban.  He is devastated that his prime athletic years are being wasted here in Indonesia.

These are not people interested in being violent.  They are the people who fled violence. Like most Americans, the refugees we work with (among the 14,000 in Indonesia waiting to be resettled to a third country) are dedicated to their families and improving their future through jobs, good health, education, and finding a comfortable or at least safe place to live.

My experience with Roshan Learning Center refugee students in Jakarta is they hope to land in places that are safe, orderly and peaceful.  Despite the violence and upheaval many have experienced, once resettled these refugees too want to model and encourage this peaceful order.  This perspective is backed up by study after study.  Research from the University of Texas, the University of Alberta, the American Immigration Council, and the Cato Institute, among other places, shows that immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit serious crimes or end up behind bars.  In fact, high rates of education are associated with low rates of violent crime and property crime.  In the U.S., this is true of first-generation and second-generation immigrants.

“You’re more likely to be killed by your own clothes than an immigrant terrorist,” heads one article by Vox, presenting research conducted by Alex Nowrasteh.  This is funny headline but it underscores a serious point.  Thanks to intense vetting, a process that no one wants to diminish, the odds of being killed by an immigrant terrorist are 1 in 3.6 billion.  The odds of having your clothes catch on fire are considerably higher.

Fear of Lost Jobs and High Costs

Another deep-seated fear is that immigrants take jobs and suck up social services that cost us money.  This seems like a rational fear—how could people from other places speaking a foreign language readily benefit places where they have been resettled?

But there is no indication that immigrants have any negative impact on the wages or employment status of native-born workers, based on a new report, Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration, from researchers at Princeton, Cornell, Harvard and other premier academic institutions. Highly-skilled immigrants—those with special expertise or higher levels of education—actually spur innovation and create jobs for working class Americans. Further, once settled, immigrant families contribute billions of dollars to local and national tax bases and help sustain vital public services such as public schools and police.

Here’s another look at the fiscal bottom line based on that report:

* First-generation immigrants cost the U.S. $57 billion.
* Second-generation immigrants add $30 billion to U.S. government revenue.
* Third-generation immigrants add $223 billion to U.S. government revenue.

The overall financial benefits in the long run are quite clear.  Immigrants contribute billions to national economies—far more than they cost us.

Beyond the fiscal contributions, consider also the other contributions of immigrants, such as diversified world views, flavorful cuisines, willingness to take jobs others do not want, language skills, and so on. In short, immigrants are people who seek a peaceful place to live and a way to support their families and community, who also enrich the U.S. and other resettlement countries culturally and, with some patience, economically.

When I look at the American election from the eyes of refugees, what is remarkable is not the fact that they seem scary to some Americans—something unimaginable to the refugees themselves, who are at the receiving end of so much poverty, discrimination and neglect.

What is remarkable to them is that America just had an election with a massive change in leadership, the balance of power and ideology, yet there were no imprisonments, violent riots or deaths.  Every single person, man and woman, regardless of ethnicity or religion, got to have an opinion and no one threatened them for it or silenced them.  We had a safe and peaceful transition of power, and ordinary citizens had a big role in making that transition happen.

This power of the common person expressed through voting is something that makes America great and has been a bedrock of the American idea since the 18th century, when Thomas Paine and others fought for the democratic principles of our American republic.  I’m sure our founding fathers never imagined we would be a country afraid of people who need a hand up, who seek religious freedom, safety for their families, or the right to participate in a peaceful democracy.

Alone in the Middle of Everyone

The first time I met Saleha and Mojgan, I was enchanted and troubled. It is rare to meet young Afghan women traveling alone, without a male protector as is the custom in the Afghan culture. These two girls, ages 21 and 16 respectively, spoke some English, although it was hard to gauge how much because they were too shy to say much to me. Although now sharing the tiny cramped room of their brother, already a student at Roshan Learning Center in Jakarta, Indonesia, they had traveled here from Afghanistan alone and they remain essentially alone.

They are lovely young women, and after more efforts to draw them out, I could tell they were also passionate. They are leaking at the seams with grief and quiet anger and a combination of despair laced with hope. They came here because their widowed mother could no longer support them in addition to their younger brother. Their mother had received financial help from the girls’ uncle, who suddenly passed away, leaving them not only heartbroken but also broke.

And so Saleha and Mojgan made the perilous journey to Indonesia to join their other brother Zafar, in the hopes that he could support them. As an asylum seeker, Zafar is not legally allowed to work here and has no financial sponsor. Just 20-years old, he works under the table at a local non-profit as an “office boy” to scrape by enough money for food and rent. Needless to say, he has nothing to offer the girls financially, nor does he have much to offer them socially, as he is also a student at Roshan.

Despite our best efforts, Saleha and Mojgan may not be able to enroll at the learning center for quite some time. (Roshan has a waiting list, due to the lack of other educational opportunities for refugees in Jakarta, especially educational programs with native English- and Indonesian-speaking teachers. We stopped the waiting list at 85, which is more than the 75 we currently serve–the most we can fit in our four classrooms.) The girls, who enjoy sewing and biology, are unable to pursue their interests here in Jakarta, so instead they sleep, eat and above all else wait.

As Saleha and Mojgan wait, they make batches of bread out of cheap flour, which they eat and eat, and then they sleep some more. They miss their mother constantly and aside from each other are lonely — an affliction with short and long-term health implications. Social isolation is more dangerous to one’s health than obesity; it increases heart disease, depression and the chances of premature death by 14 percent. It’s a critical and growing public health concern in countries where therapies are an option, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of Utah, and elsewhere.

Creating caring communities has long been at the core of high-quality early childhood programs in particular, as developmental specialists repeatedly show that young children are rarely able to absorb new cognitive content when they are emotionally out of sorts. Indeed, lack of positive social experiences early in life can have lifelong effects: “The absence of positive social interactions in childhood is linked to negative consequences later in life, such as withdrawal, loneliness, depression, and feelings of anxiety…grade retention, school dropout, and mental health and behavior problems,” wrote Michaelene Ostrosky and Hedda Maedan in an NAEYC article in 2010.

Loneliness is an especially critical problem among refugees who are displaced from their communities and family support–unable to go home, yet also unable to integrate due to their transitional circumstances. This a population without access to therapy and with few opportunities to create supportive, caring communities or integrate into the society around them, wherever it may be. A British organization called The Forum published research on refugees’ experiences citing that 58 percent of refugees living not in Jakarta but in London named isolation and loneliness as their single biggest challenge.

At Roshan Learning Center, we are doing our best to make that transitional circumstance as transformational as possible. While teaching language and academics is at the core of what we do, we strongly feel that a space for community — shared common ground for those in-between their homelands and where their next home might be — is equally crucial. That’s one of the lessons we have absorbed through our daily classes at Roshan. Through our community of learning, we have created a community of belonging and a shared dialogue beyond just the English and math lessons in class.


Education is Worth Fighting for, for Indonesians and Refugees

On a sunny day in the attic of a red brick building, two teachers of Roshan Learning Center were ecstatically wrapping gifts of colorful school supplies. At two o’clock in the afternoon, with four crackers hung on a raffia string in the backyard, they were set to start the cracker eating competition for our primary students in light of Indonesian Independence Day.

indonesia august 15.jpg

Seventy-one years ago, Indonesia fought for its independence from the Dutch East Indies. Grasping its short-term and long-term problems in the post-colonial era, early Indonesian leaders argued that every citizen should have access to democratic education, which they see as key to solving social issues.

My grandfather grew up in a small town in Central Java in the 1940s, when Indonesia was under the control of the Dutch. He attended a colonial school until he finished high school. Education was available for the non Dutch but was based on ethnicity and social status, so many did not have any opportunity to enter the school system. My grandfather saw getting an education in the face of the hardships of the colonial era as a gift.

After the Japanese invaded Indonesia and defeated the Dutch fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942, they forced all Dutch schools to be closed down. Those who were enrolled in these schools stopped getting education. Against all the odds, the Japanese invasion did not stop my grandfather from learning. His teacher stealthily ran a program using the Dutch system despite the constant terror.

In this day and age, Indonesia still faces significant challenges to improving its education system and increasing school enrollment for its citizens, but it has made education more accessible. There is relatively more access to education today than before in this archipelago.

Meanwhile, many refugee children in Indonesia are living their formative years with very little to no access to education. We all know the dire consequences of not going to school even in the best of circumstances. Refugee children are hardly in good circumstances; they are at great risk of psychological distress including pre-migration experiences that not many can relate to.

Sharing the joy of Indonesian Independence Day is one of the ways our Indonesian teachers show compassion to our students and gratitude for the freedom that they have. Through experiencing popular, traditional Indonesian games such as a cracker eating competition, a gunny sack race, or a marble race, we hope our students experience the best of Indonesia–the sense of community, connection and joy–and have long-lasting memories of opportunities and freedom during their time in Indonesia. It is their right to have an education too, just like Indonesians now experience.


RLC Honored to be Recognized on World Refugee Day 2016

On June 20, World Refugee Day, staff and students at Roshan Learning Center were honored to receive an Award of Recognition from UNHCR at a moving ceremony and the lively celebrations that followed. We are delighted to be in the good company of other refugee-service providers in Indonesia being recognized: Dompet Dhuafa, KomnasHAM, Palang Merah Indonesia, and SUAKA.


It’s our privilege to work with asylum seekers and refugees, and we look forward to the work and fun ahead.

For more news:
Click here for a statement by UNHCR.
Click here for a video presentation by RLC.
Click here to read an article by UNHCR Rep. Thomas Vargas mentioning Roshan Learning Center.

One Sentence at a Time

Today is the first day of the new term at Roshan Learning Center. In spite of the flurry of activity required to get things ready–scrubbing floor mats, cleaning air conditioning vents, juggling complicated schedules in tightly packed spaces–the excitement of new beginnings is always worth the hard work. With all the focus on logistics, it can be hard to focus on the real reason behind all the work, which is to see student progress.

As I reflect back on Term 2, one of the most fun and effective projects that emerged from Roshan also started as something that seemed like hard work for the students, but ended up being well worth it, according to the secondary students. They improved their writing skills one day, one sentence at a time.

Writing in one’s native language can be a daunting experience, but English language learners face the more daunting challenges when they write. Some experience the difficulties of reading and writing from left to right while some struggle with understanding text organisations. At Roshan, our teachers encountered common writing problems in student writing, but they didn’t give up on their students. They cranked up their brains and came up with a creative solution to make their students write a little at a time.

Teachers Francisca Mignano and Dea Sardiyana encouraged their secondary students to “write at least one sentence a day about something positive they experienced, saw or heard or something that made them feel good or happy.” The inspiration comes from an Italian book “Momenti di trascurabile felicità” (Moments of Negligible Happiness) by Francesco Piccolo.

Click here to see what they wrote.

Not only did the students write their daily sentences, but also the teachers compiled their work and published it in a small collection.

“With this collection, we hope that the students can feel proud of the improvements they’ve achieved in their writing. Even if it was only one sentence at a time. It shows improvements in their punctuation, their spelling and in the grammar points that they’ve studied,” wrote Dea and Francisca in the book’s introduction.

Initially, the students found it silly to write a sentence on a post-it note each day. Their reaction was “Oh no, not again!”. However, towards the end, they did it willingly and more creatively. As a result, they were able to make progress in their writing because they could identify common errors and make corrections. Mustafa can now write using past tense verbs in his sentences. Instead of using only present tense, students are now able to also write in the past tense and the past continuous tense.

The compilation of students’ daily sentences reveals the process behind learning English–the value of punctuation, small improvements in grammar, and increasingly sophisticated vocabulary. The reader sees how students made improvements and how they approached the task over the course of 6 months, progress which otherwise can be hard to see if there is no record of it. The practice of daily writing, no matter how brief, gave students the opportunity not only to improve their writing, but also to focus on the good in their lives, rather than the hardship. They learned about happiness, one sentence at a time.

I can’t wait to see what the students will learn about language–and about themselves–in Term 3.

RLC Honored to Be Recognized

On World Refugee Day 2016

On June 20, World Refugee Day, staff and students at Roshan Learning Center were honored to receive an Award of Recognition from UNHCR at a moving ceremony and the lively celebrations that followed. We are delighted to be in the good company of other refugee-service providers in Indonesia being recognized: Dompet Dhuafa, KomnasHAM, Palang Merah Indonesia, and SUAKA.

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It’s our privilege to work with asylum seekers and refugees, and we look forward to the work and fun ahead.

For more news:
Click here for a statement by UNHCR.
Click here for a video presentation by RLC.
Click here to read an article by UNHCR Rep. Thomas Vargas mentioning Roshan Learning Center.

Indonesia Needs to Be Part of the Refugee Conversation

Musa*, with his gap-toothed grin and hand-me-down faded blue Oakland Zoo Camp t-shirt, doesn’t care one whit about a bunch of adults getting together to talk about “the causes of international flows of people and their complex inter-relations with development, armed conflict and environmental changes.” Musa only wants to know when he is going to be picked as goose in a lively game of duck-duck-goose.

Meanwhile, government leaders, the media, and think tanks, are going back and forth about an ongoing global crisis of people on the run from war, persecution, and climate change in their homelands. The crisis isn’t going away and Indonesia has a great opportunity to become a leader on the issue, while bolstering its reputation as a place of humanitarian understanding.

By signing the Convention of Refugee Rights and actively supporting refugees, Indonesia has the opportunity to invest a little and see a high return on investment — gaining the respect of the global community, the thanks of truly vulnerable people in need, high-performing new residents in some cases, and hopefully a seat at President Barack Obama’s refugee summit in September.

While Musa, his family, and 14.000 refugees sit in limbo in Indonesia, President Obama and the United Nations will host the September summit of high-level leaders from around the world in New York on Sept. 19. Indonesia should be there, and has recent experience to make a worthy contribution.

In 1975, Indonesia received tens of thousands of Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese who fled their homes because they had supported U.S.-led invasions and feared retaliation. These refugees ended up staying in Indonesia for 20 years or more. Their assimilation was not always easy, and they “tested Indonesia’s patience seriously,” as scholar Antje Missbach says. But Indonesia took them in all the same, and was praised accordingly by the world’s human rights community. Indonesia now has a chance to lead the way again, and enhance its global stature.

Whether Indonesia will make this commitment in time to be invited to the summit is an open question. Indonesia is perhaps best described as “on the fence” about aiding displaced people at the moment. Officially, the government does not deport asylum seekers but also does not provide active support for them.

Despite the growing number of displaced people now living in Jakarta, growing from 500 to 14,000 in less than a decade, global attention has largely been focused elsewhere. Turkey is trying to keep pace with 2.5 million refugees from Syria alone, and Jordan, which has a population of less than 6.5 million people, is currently home to 630,000 refugees, again from Syria.

Indonesia’s comparatively small numbers provides a tremendous opportunity. There are opportunities to serve and integrate people in a way that other countries, overwhelmed by sheer numbers and limited resources, cannot.

Take Musa’s father, for example. If the government allowed Musa’s father to work, he would gladly do so, contributing to the local economy. He would love to earn money through his own hard labor cleaning the streets or washing cars, rather than waiting for meager handouts, which he may or may not receive. Another parent, Maryam, has a master’s degree in civil engineering and a specialty in transportation. She is desperate to work but also is unable to given her refugee status, which prevents her from working. Yet she her skills could be invaluable in Indonesia, a country that doesn’t have enough trained engineers and whose capital, Jakarta, is routinely stalled by traffic.

To remedy this, Indonesia could enable refugees to work — a policy Jordan recently enacted. There are also abundant opportunities for vocational programs to train individuals to become professionals in fields of agriculture and food sciences, computer sciences, transportation, ship building, engineering, and manufacturing, all areas requiring wider skill sets to boost the Indonesian economy, according to a 2015 report by OECD and the Asian Development Bank. Creating those opportunities would benefit Indonesia as much as the refugees. Both skilled and unskilled workers boost local economies by having incomes that allow them to become both consumers and producers.

In addition to gainful employment, education is vital to the development of every displaced child. It is the goal of the UN to integrate children into host country schools, and Indonesia can advance that goal as well, while helping alleviate negative ripple effects in the community. With thousands of children and adults waiting for help, many having experienced chronic or recent trauma, health concerns from mental illness to substance abuse, from domestic violence to sickness from crowded living spaces, can spread.

So far, Musa has fortunately stayed healthy despite his family’s hard circumstances, including that his younger brother is a special needs child who suffers mental and physical challenges. Musa and his sisters mostly want to go to school every day to learn and make friends. His parents want to do something other than wait.

A few key steps by Indonesia’s government could help make that happen, and along the way, Indonesia could once again help show the world how to make room for even the most unexpected guests.

*All names changed to maintain confidentiality. Special thanks to Amb. Robert Blake and Mrs. Sofia Blake for inputs into the ideas put forth in this article, and to Hugh Biggar for edits. All opinions expressed reflect only those of the author. UN Photo by Rick Bajornas.


Who is a Refugee?

Last year, more than 1 million people were forced to leave home due to conflict and make the perilous journey to seek refuge in a country not their own in Europe. The influx of refugees, mainly Syrian, to Greece, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere made daily headlines, yet the reality of their lives remained misunderstood. Many news outlets have used the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ interchangeably; however, the terms have distinct meanings and calling the plight of refugees a migrant crisis is inaccurate.

Refugees focus on issues of human rights and protection, whereas migrants focus on economic and professional concerns. Economic concerns may be pressing indeed–there is no joy in facing a future without the hope of a decent job. Yet safety concerns are a different matter and can mean the difference between life and death. “Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before,” wrote Adrian Edwards, Head of News and Chief Spokesperson at UNHCR.


The legal definition of a refugee emerged in response to the aftermath of Second World War. By the time World War II ended, millions of people had fled their homes and didn’t have immediate support. The situation in their countries of arrival was so difficult that international law and organisations dealing with refugees—such as the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and International Refugee Organization (later replaced by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR)—were created.

Legally speaking

According to Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the key elements of the refugee definition are:

  1. The well-founded fear of persecution which is assessed objectively and subjectively.
  2. Persecution. This element is particularly difficult to define—there is no definition of persecution under the international law; nor accepted definition of what persecution means.
  3. The core grounds that are acknowledged as the contributing factors to the persecution. The fears of persecution are for reason of one or more of the five grounds — race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
  4. Outside of one’s own country or nationality.
  5. Unable to get the protection from their own state.

Refugee law is declarative—that is, it confirms the status the person already is. If the five elements above apply, then the person is a refugee according to its legal definition, even before they register with UNHCR. As statistics only show people who register with UNHCR, there are many more refugees in the world than the data represent. The number of refugees registered with UNHCR worldwide currently stands at 15.5 million, according to UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, June 2015.

The broader view

There has been a debate over the legal definition of a refugee as it only protects individuals subject to persecution—not those who cross an international border fleeing war, natural disasters, mass atrocity, or trafficking. While some are satisfied with the status quo, many argue that the Refugee Convention is inadequate to deal with contemporary geopolitical problems.

When Africa was under colonial rule, the Organization for African Unity supplemented the definition of a refugee with an expanded version which covers group scenarios. It states, “Every person, who owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality” (Article 1, OAU Convention 1969).

Latin America took a similar approach in expanding the definition of a refugee in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.

The European Union, by contrast, has made and implemented policies—such as granting refugees humanitarian status instead of refugee status—that are relatively restraining.

In Southeast Asia, few countries are signatory to the Refugee Convention and many countries, including Indonesia, act as transit countries but do not absorb refugees for permanent resettlement. The lack of national legal framework governing the refugees in countries such as Indonesia means that refugee protection is limited; for example, the government does not guarantee support for refugee’s right to education.

Being a refugee is not a choice

It is often the push factors rather than the pull factors that compel refugees to flee; they feel pushed out by fear—of government, of imprisonment, of torture, or worse. “All it took for me was one night and one decision; the decision to leave,” a refugee friend told me. He had a job, a car or two, and possibly a nice house in Iran. “That one night I left everything. Now I have nothing. But it feels safer here,” he said.


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