Roshan Refugees Turn to Higher Education

Turning 18 and Fighting for Hope

“Wake up, it’s time for Roshan,” the shelter caretaker says, hoping to rouse the slumbering teenagers from their metal bunk beds. Until recently, their feet would hit the ground excited about about the day ahead. But not this month. The usual optimism of spring and of adolescence has been offset by hard news.

In October 2017, the refugees and asylum seekers at Roshan Learning Center learned they would not be resettled. In a surprise UNHCR announcement, the agency made clear moving from Indonesia to another country was off the table for the more than 14,000 individuals currently in stateless limbo in Indonesia. Adding to the finality of the decision, UNHCR representatives stopped reviewing resettlement cases.

Instead of a new start in Australia, say, or the United States, Indonesia’s refugees–many fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands–had to reconcile themselves to a new reality. For Roshan’s teenagers, just at the start of adulthood, this radically altered future is hitting them hard.

“I can’t sleep,” said one, filled with anxiety. “All I want to do is sleep,” said another, equally anxious. “Why go to school and study?” “Is there hope for a degree or a job in Indonesia?” they ask Roshan staff. Such questions are increasingly common at Roshan this spring, as are inability to concentrate and volatile emotions from sadness to irritability.

These questions they ask are fitting for May Day, also known as International Workers Day. Thousands of Indonesians took to the streets of Jakarta yesterday, demanding higher wages. Meanwhile, refugees do not yet have the right to work at all Indonesia. Without wages, they are forced to rely on charity to survive. Without goals–the prospect of a degree or a job–students’ motivation to study takes a hit.

Perhaps most dangerously, students on the cusp of adulthood are at risk of dropping out of the education program altogether. At age 18, students living in one of five UNHCR-supported shelters in Jakarta move from unaccompanied minor to single-adult status. Students turning 18, mostly boys, believe they have almost no hope of resettlement just as their housing and financial situation becomes dire. Only the the most vulnerable refugees–usually unaccompanied minors, widows, the elderly–receive consideration for the rare openings for resettlement outside of Indonesia.

When students are asked to leave shelters, there is no transition plan. Barred from working for pay in Indonesia, refugees quickly become homelessness unless they can find financial help from a charity or family member in another country. Once homeless, it is difficult to continue to attend classes or escape a cycle of poverty.

Sadly, for many of our Roshan 18 year-olds, the prospect of this harsh new reality is becoming clear. Staff too are coming to understand this as well. Roshan used to have happy goodbye events for students leaving for resettlement but has seen no students leave for a new country in more than six months. This death of hope is contributing to a quieter anguish in the Roshan community.

To counteract this downward trajectory, Roshan is implementing Hope for Higher Education cohorts. These cohorts will allow students to continue their studies through online classes, centering their work around the relationships that make learning engaging and meaningful. Roshan pairs up groups of two or more refugee students with a mentor who will meet with the students on a regular basis, either in person or remotely, to ensure study plans are in place, goals are achievable and students can ask questions, be held accountable and be encouraged. Many 20-something Roshan students have already enrolled in Kiron University, online courses designed for refugees with tracks such as engineering, social work and business administration. Hope for Higher Education cohorts will support Roshan students to succeed in the program.

Through the cohorts, Roshan is counteracting some of the emotional toll of the recent policy changes affecting their lives, as we encourage students to take the long view and take advantage of this period to study.

It will take political will, however, to change the stop light on resettlement from red to green. The U.S., which has averaged acceptance of about 95,000 refugees per year in recent years, is on track to accept only about 20,000 refugees this year. The Refugee Council of Australia reports that the expected 2017-18 intake in Australia would be even less at just over 16,000 people in one year. Other affluent nations have similarly reduced the number of spots available for refugees. There are over 24 million asylum seekers and refugees globally seeking safety and sanctuary, but many nations have largely turned away from sheltering vulnerable, displaced people. And as we well know at Roshan, these are not faceless individuals but people with names, families and ambitions.

As current geopolitics have slowed resettlement rates dramatically, let’s hope policy changes both in Indonesia and in resettlement countries do not continue to be dismissed. Let’s hope that the hand currently turned away in indifference becomes an open one, held out to those in need and extending welcome and the opportunity to contribute.