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.

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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.