Recent News

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.

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.

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.

unhcr 2.jpg

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.

Cycling Around Taiwan for Roshan

Inspired by Scott Thompson’s BecakTerus, Tiffany Lee, a senior at Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS), challenged herself do something meaningful for others during her winter break. Along with Tejas Widjonarko, Alvin Roh, and Riwa Tamai, she decided to cycle one lap around Taiwan in aid of Roshan Learning Center.

Their Cycling for Charity – Roshan website invited us into their journey on the pedals as Tejas updated their blog with photos and videos taken during the trip.

Cycling for roshan.jpg

The day after Christmas, the group set foot in Hsinchu where their cycling starting point was. From Taiwan’s infrastructure and architecture to evidence of strenuous biking to Taiwanese mochi desserts, the group shared their honest thoughts and stories about cruising on two-wheelers for 100 kilometers each day for 9 days. To motivate themselves during the uphill ride, Riwa reminded herself of her cross country runners’ mentality while Tiffany sang a Chinese song and talked to herself so she wouldn’t give up.

“Over the past 9 days, I have learnt to reflect on my place in the world and to stay resilient even when the task got challenging,” wrote Tiffany at the end of the trip. Long distances, challenging terrains, and stormy weather didn’t let them lose their sense of humour and purpose — why they decided to take on this journey.

Since October 2015, Tiffany has been volunteering on Saturday mornings with the JIS GIN (Global Issue Network) Club. Her soft heart and her passion for service prompted her to further support Roshan Learning Center.

As of today, Cycling for Charity has raised approximately one hundred million Indonesian rupiah for Roshan Learning Center. The funds will be used to pay for each participant who makes progress to sit an official Cambridge English exam which comes with an internationally-recognised certificate if they pass.

Their cycling trip was momentary, but their service is enduring.

“I Can’t Believe You Feel Lucky”

One of my dearest childhood friends, Kevin, was diagnosed on October 23 with stage IV glioblastoma: brain cancer. This is a man who got a PhD from Duke University and became faculty at Cornell, Princeton, and the University of Pittsburgh. But more importantly to me, this is the almost-brother with whom I played at the beach every Sunday, walked dogs, pulled Christmas crackers, and goaded into dancing with my father in a restaurant—as a teenager. This is the guy I can’t beat at Blockhead, tennis, or word games but who is simultaneously one of the nicest people I know and always has a smile for everyone.

Without treatment, Kevin’s neurosurgeon said Kevin might live three months—although of course, there is treatment.

One never knows how you would react to such news. My guess for myself would be denial, fury, indignant cries of unfairness, bottomless grief. Kevin’s reaction was none of those, or at least those emotions were a distant second to something different. He told us he became aware of two things. First was his contentment with how good his life has been; and secondly was awareness of how connected we all are, this family of humanity.

“If you think of me during the day, please just use the moment to think about your shared connection with humanity, and our fragility—not just to cancer but to the hardships of life. And perhaps let that influence you a bit during your day,” Kevin wrote.

But the funny thing about fragility is that it’s not always obvious who is fragile and when.

We get many requests for visitors to come to Roshan Learning Center “to help.” We deeply value those offers and we cannot operate without the help of the people who come to help us. But invariably the teachers and visitors who come to volunteer with our community of asylum seekers and refugees are changed by the experience and not in the ways they expected. They expect to do a good deed and feel good about it; they leave feeling lucky they came.

“You have no idea how much being part of this community has meant to me,” said Greta, one of our departing long-term volunteers. “I’ve learned so much more from them than they have learned from me,” said Tobias. “Working here is an absolute blessing to me; I need them more than they need me,” said Christine.

One exchange in particular stands out to me from recent weeks. A high school student from an affluent international school was part of a group coming to do fun activities with the primary school students at Roshan. As the student and I sat at the table chatting, the mother of three boys in the program came to rest with us, and so I introduced the student and mother. The mother, a young widow, is a very elegant lady, poised and gentle. She thanked the student for coming, smiling and saying, “We are so lucky, you come here to help us.”

The student seemed not to have heard her and continued tapping away at her laptop, and so the mother and I started talking about the difficulties of reining in a rambunctious three-year-old. But then we noticed that the student had tears coming down her cheeks. “I can’t believe you feel lucky,” she said.

In that moment, my heart went out to this girl. She—a talented, lovely, star student with a loving family likely living in a nice home and certainly attending one of the best schools in the world, with a bright future in front of her—seemed so fragile. Sometimes those of us who have been given the most are the most fragile ones, if we are not careful to cultivate gratitude and contentment intentionally.

The student was aware in that second of how strong this woman was, of how much resilience and resourcefulness this woman must have had to have gotten herself and three small children across the world alone in the most dangerous of circumstances after her husband was killed. To have done that and to have gratitude for the life of poverty, isolation, and hardship she is living in Jakarta shows immense strength. The student recognized this and it touched something in her.

It made me think of Kevin.

It makes us feel small and humble—fragile—to be in the presence of people who have seen the worst of life and come through it with gratitude, kindness and optimism remaining. We wonder if we could have such strength facing the same circumstances.
My hope for all of us this Christmas season is that we can each be “a force for generosity, compassion, and simply being nice to others,” as Kevin wrote. With every act of kindness and generosity, we cultivate that gratitude and contentment. It’s a gift to give ourselves this Christmas.

How to Respond When the Lights Go Out in Paris

A woman hung outside the third story window of Bataclan Theater, one of the targets of this weekend’s horror show in Paris.  At the exit door on the ground floor below her, people fled, stepping over debris and the injured.  People screamed and cried as they ran.  One man dragged an injured person up the dark street to safety.  The woman continued hanging outside the window.

It is hard not to watch video footage of the violence, see the heartbreak of people who lost a loved one, or hear people call out in terror and not feel afraid and angry oneself.  Just as the perpetrators would hope, people respond with high-intensity emotion.  “Now show a photo of a piece of a terrorist stuck to a wall,” comments one online news reader.  “As my aging grandmother once said to me, ‘If you can’t find peace, find revenge,” writes another.

In the U.S., some governors and presidential hopefuls favor shutting the borders to refugees from Syria. “I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the [U.S.] citizens of Alabama in harm’s way,” Governor Robert Bentley said Monday.

Refugees Want Nothing to Do with the Extremists

There must be multifaceted responses to acts of terrorism, including from political, intelligence, and military arms of global coalitions.  But to simply shut out entire populations of people or to wish violence on them seems both short-sighted and naive.  The vast majority of the people fleeing Syria–or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, or other countries in the area–are daily, not occasional, victims of the terrorists and fundamentalists.  They’re fleeing because they hate the situation too.

The families coming to our learning center in Jakarta left their Middle Eastern countries because they want nothing to do with the extreme fundamentalists who threaten their livelihoods and children and who have upended formerly peaceful cities throughout the region, turning citizens into homeless refugees even within their own country borders.

Taking the Long View: Winning the War

It seems clear that in addition to political and military responses, education has to be high on the list of systematic and coordinated responses to terrorism.  Creating an education system for asylum seekers is perhaps more difficult to implement and requires more patience than a military response, but it’s no less important–at least in winning the war and not just the battle.


Consider Mostafa, Ahmed, and Hussein, let’s call them.  They are teenagers who left their parents in Afghanistan a few years ago.  Their families spent all their collective savings and hope on these boys, desperate to get them out of harm’s way even without any real assurance they would land safely in another country, and now they’re waiting in Jakarta for UNHCR and the Western world to determine their fate.  These boys could become the next generation of terrorists with nothing to lose; or they could become the next generation of tailors, engineers, and teachers.  It’s partly up to us.

The woman hanging on the ledge, who was pregnant it turns out, was pulled to safety by another civilian who heard her crying.  This seems like a great metaphor for what we “regular people” can do even if we’re not in positions of power.  We can be that anonymous civilian who helps someone out when they need it.  We can teach a class, buy some groceries for a family of immigrants, or help a new refugee neighbor fill out paperwork for the gas company–we can give people a hand up.  We can educate them in language skills, academic knowledge, and our ideology that love trumps hate.

Unfortunately, we know these kinds of attacks will happen again.  Better to start taking the long view than to stick our heads in the sand.  Better to give children as many light bulb moments as we can than to shun them to lives of darkness so that they seek comfort in the wrong places.

Why on Earth are there Refugees in Indonesia?

There are thousands of expats who come to Jakarta each year to help the vulnerable, the down-trodden, the “least of these.” We come with hopes of lifting people out of poverty and improving health, education and livelihoods for the poor. But of course, we usually come to help the Indonesian poor, of which there are many. Indonesia’s growing economic strength belies a deep and broad population living in poverty. Therefore, people are often surprised to hear we work with refugees, the poor among us who are not Indonesian by definition. “Why are there refugees in Jakarta?” people often ask.

There are as many reasons as there are asylum seekers, since each person’s story is uniquely personal. Yet there are points of convergence as well.

Unique Stories

Asylum seekers and refugees come from all over the world, but participants at Roshan Learning Center (RLC) come mainly from Afghanistan and Iran. We have a bilingual approach to children’s learning that requires understanding of Farsi. Adult participants who mainly come to learn English may come from Mali, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Ethiopia.

Some people received a good education at home and in fact are teachers or managers at our center; and others received no schooling at all before attending this learning center. Their families may be generations long without access even to primary school. Some were middle-class professionals in their home country–registered nurses, civil engineers, or business owners–and some came from deep poverty. Some come from major cosmopolitan cities like Tehran, and some come from remote villages where sheep herding runs the economy. Some are Muslim, some are new Christians, some are atheists. Some have dearly beloved family members still in the home country, some people have no one left.

In other words, our group is extremely diverse.

Common Experiences

Nonetheless, there are common bonds: They left their home countries because they felt they had no choice. In addition to war and conflict, there are three types of persecution our participants are usually fleeing:

  • Political (people disagreed with their government or their government can’t protect them from extremist leaders)
  • Ethnic (people in certain groups are executed because of family heritage)
  • Religious (people changed religions or considered changing religions)

For any of these reasons, our participants could be hanged, shot, imprisoned, or tortured in their home country.

And they often have family members who were. We have a widow with three young children in our community who lost her husband during a bombing in Quetta, Pakistan. We have young man whose father was hanged for disagreeing with his government too vocally; another whose brother was tortured by the Taliban twice before he died; and another whose parents were burned to death for converting to Christianity.

But Why Indonesia? And How?

They come to Indonesia typically because it is an easy place to land without a visa; they can get a visa on arrival. They also come because as a predominantly Muslim group, at least at the time of arrival, many of them feel comfortable arriving here in another predominantly Muslim country (although some of them have become Christians while here). Until 2014, many came with the hopes of taking a boat to Australian territory, Christmas Island. Although the boats stopped going shortly after July 2014, when Australia stopped accepting boat arrivals for resettlement, many asylum-seekers in Indonesia came prior to that policy change.

Immigrants arrive by plane, boat, bus ride, walking, in the trunks of cars, or some combination of the above. Some have authentic passports and some used fake passports. Some better-off individuals simply fly to Indonesia as they can get a visa on arrival; and others who can’t afford to fly pay smugglers to help them get here. These are usually more arduous and traumatic journeys.

Steps to Get from Here to a Third Country

Upon arrival, immigrants usually go directly to the UNHRC office and register. Once registered, they are considered asylum-seekers. After a waiting period that can take between 9 – 24 months, UNHCR officials interview them in what’s called the First Instance interview, and decide whether there is a legitimate case showing persecution in the home country. If UNHCR sees a case, the person becomes recognized as a refugee. This is a moment of huge relief and joy for the person. It means the person will get to go somewhere other than back to the home country–although they do not get to choose where they go.

The consulate of a third country will then interview the refugee person or family and may or may not accept them for resettlement in that country. They may be interviewed by two countries or more before a country accepts them. Our participants typically go to the US, Australia or New Zealand.

If UNHCR does not find enough evidence of persecution after the First Instance interview, the asylum seeker is rejected. This is extremely difficult news for the person in question. They may appeal one time. If their appeal is accepted, the asylum seeker becomes a refugee. If the appeal is rejected, UNHCR and Indonesia expect the person to go back to their home country, although some countries will not repatriate a citizen who has tried to leave.

The process of status determination and resettlement now usually takes around 4 years.

Work and School

During those 4 years, asylum seekers and refugees may neither work nor go to school. The laws state clearly that any attempt to earn an income by working while in Indonesia while lead to a rejection as a refugee; and there is an absence of law to protect children’s right to education. Barriers to school enrollment include:

* Inability to speak Indonesian.
* Inability to pay for required school uniforms and books.
* Lack of interest in Indonesian curriculum, as Indonesia is viewed as a temporary stay.
* Disinterest or sometimes hostility on the part of Indonesians to accept them in school.

Roshan Learning Center provides a bilingual approach: Half of our classes are held in English (with a focus on learning English) and half of classes are held in Farsi (with a focus on teaching content knowledge such as math and science, mainly, although we do try to offer music, art, and physical education when possible).

We do not charge tuition but we do require families to pay for their own transportation costs, which is not insignificant in Jakarta.

Some participants receive a small stipend each month to live on (about 1,000,000 rp or US$85), provided by various church congregations, private individuals who want to help, or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), but others receive no financial help from anyone. They live off savings, help from family members, or illegally doing odd jobs.

Creating Community

Participants live in various places around Jakarta (there are detention centers and shelters for refugees in Jakarta, but we do not specifically work with those groups). Asylum seekers generally try to avoid congregating in a single area or apartment complex because those areas become targeted by Indonesian Immigration officials or scam artists looking for easy prey. As a result, refugees in Jakarta are geographically and emotionally isolated. The learning center therefore provides a community center of sorts, as well as a place to offer classes.

Because child well-being is highly dependent on parental well-being, and because single adults need connection and community, we try to provide classes and groups for refugee adults when we can find volunteers. In some ways, our participants are nothing like each other, but in other ways, they share many common bonds.

Ironically, they also share many things in common with poor Indonesians: lack of adequate health care, education and a voice in the community, among others. But with many people working to make a difference for both Indonesians and asylum seekers, good things are happening in Jakarta and throughout Indonesia.


Europe’s Migrant Crisis is a Misnomer

I have a little boy, a 6-year-old who likes Spiderman and watches that can go underwater. He has a room full of books and a playroom full of toys and lacks for nothing. We had the privilege this summer of going to Turkey on holiday, from where we took a boat to the island of Kos. Our boat was a large ferry, well constructed, lined with life jackets, and complete with drinks and popcorn for sale on board.

When we got to Kos, we decided to take a bus to visit the ruins where Hippocrates once practiced his art of healing. We waited for the bus in a park. Syrian refugees waited with us. I wondered where they hoped to go and how they got to Kos.  I sincerely doubted it was on a comfortable ferry that served popcorn, though I did not at the time realize the horrific journey most of them had likely taken on a fragile plastic dinghy.

A little boy about my son’s age saw my kids playing. He ran up to them and gave my son his stuffed animal, a small brown little thing, that had clearly been loved to bits. My son, who has shelves of stuffed animals, did not have a clue what that child had offered him. That child had offered my son a treasure that had probably seen death more than once. After playing with it a little while, my son returned it, and we made our way onto the bus.

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I wonder about that little boy now. I wonder where he is and how he is, even more so after seeing the horrifying image of the toddler lying inert in the Turkish surf, face down in his sweet red shirt. And after reading about the individuals who died after being abandoned in the back of a truck in Austria left. Abandoned is a word that keeps coming to mind as I continue to watch cable news videos and read articles of the thousands of people fleeing to Europe from Syria. How to do the right thing without abandoning these people, I wonder?

That feeling is not shared by all, of course.

Video footage of a Hungarian camerawoman purposely tripping refugees running across the border may not have been seen by as many because it is not as obviously compelling. But it was absolutely astonishing. In the footage, a Syrian man, was literally fleeing for his life with nothing more than a backpack on his back and his more cherished possession in his arms, his child. Suddenly, a journalist with a camera flung out her leg deliberately to trip him, and he and his child tumbled to the ground. The camerawoman’s petty gesture of hatred gave me, and probably most other viewers, terrible pause.

How could she do that? Have these poor refugees not suffered enough during their journeys through war, starvation, illness, fear, and betrayal? It seemed shockingly cold-hearted to see this by-stander add to the man’s hardship through that small but excruciatingly mean act.

How she could do that, or rather, why she did that, is a crucial question. We all feel crushed for that father, hurt that he had to endure one more act of violence in this flight for life. Yet the camerawoman’s vantage point is also worth examining. It may be that she was afraid of the asylum seekers because they have experienced so much war and death; they are different in their clothing, religion, and language; they could take away jobs or scant resources that she and her family feel a need to protect—all the usual reasons.

Just as individuals are afraid, governments have been afraid too. It’s hard to fathom how to absorb these millions of people into sometimes tiny countries, as in the case of Jordan, and sometimes already financially burdened countries, like Greece.  Governments want to be responsible to their own people first and foremost, and part of that responsibility involves fiscal prudence and good use of resources.

It seems like governments also need to consider humanitarian responsibility. Individuals want governments to sanction our collective empathy. We know that we too would flee our own neighborhoods if our children were daily at risk of dying and if extremists were recruiting our husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to kill and be killed.

My conversations with Mary (not her real name) remind me that people fleeing their home countries are not leaving because they love our countries so much. In her case, she left behind a gorgeous home near a lake in northern Iran. A woman “of a certain age” left a lifetime in her home town, including her parents, siblings, and friends in a sudden departure with her husband and two grown sons. Her sons had been caught on video at a home group trying to learn more about the Christian faith. Although none of them were yet Christians, the mere idea of it, with proof by video, was enough to leave them vulnerable to execution. Although they had family sell the house to pay for their journey and waiting period in Indonesia, Mary would love to go back to that beautiful hometown and her beloved family, and she holds out hope that someday she will be able to do just that.

Similarly, other refugees we know here in Jakarta would far rather return home if it were safe—return to their parents, homes, the food they prefer, and the landscape they are used to—than go it alone in unchartered territory where they will be “aliens,” usually at the bottom end of the ladder when it comes to jobs and equitable social status.

Based on my experiences, particularly at Roshan Learning Center, I encourage nations hosting asylum seekers and refugees to do at least three things:

  1. Welcome refugees with kindness and compassion, providing temporary refuge while their home countries get out from the worst of the disarray and violence. Temporary refuge could mean creating refugee camps or offering provisions to individuals for short-term (1-2 year) accommodations, living expenses, and access to health care and education.
  2. Increase financial and human resources to major humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF, World Relief, and so forth, so that aid is available to the neediest immediately; and to processing agencies such as UNHCR. It is imperative that people’s cases receive adequate attention efficiently so that people don’t languish too long on the sidelines of society and become less productive, less skilled, and less well over time. People have the right to know relatively quickly (again, within 1-2 years) if they have the option to resettle in another country. So far this year, the UN has received only $1.67 of the $4.5 billion it needs to support Syrian refugees alone.
  3. Make longer term (3-5 year) plans for both repatriation and expatriation. Millions of these asylum seekers will want very much to go home and rebuild their neighborhoods as soon as it is safe to do so. Individuals in safe and educated nations should take every opportunity to send repatriating refugees back home armed not with weapons that will feed extremists’ armies but rather with an appreciation for democracy and the goodwill of hundreds of individuals in host nations who acted with compassion and generosity.

Finally, I urge people to keep in mind the wisdom of Queen Rania of Jordan. The small country in the Middle East recently accepted 1.4 million refugees (unlike most of its neighbors). Queen Rania pointed out that it is this is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis, and perhaps the biggest humanitarian emergency of our time. Migrants come and go as they please. Refugees are in search of survival.

Take that little boy in Kos. He no doubt would rather be with his friends on a Syrian playground, surrounded by family and neighbors. But hard reality made him a refugee, one with little possessions and security. Even so, he reached to my family as best he could. Perhaps it’s time for the global community to return the favor.


Raising Awareness through a Health Clinic Day

It was the last day of a week-long summer camp at Roshan Learning Center. Inside the red brick building, children were still listening to the dentist’s explanation of the tooth decay process. Outside, teenagers were discussing their tooth problems with a health professional. Many of them hadn’t seen a dentist for a while—or ever.

After his turn to get examined on a portable dental unit, teenager Mujaba (not his real name) learned that the main cause of his tooth problem had to do with tooth brushing technique. He seemed to have an aha-moment, realizing that brushing one’s teeth properly has a lot of benefits, not only to his oral hygiene but also to general health and well-being. He now pays more attention to self-care, knowing that a little oral hygiene awareness can go a long way.

To raise awareness about health and well-being, local doctors Evan Regar and Melissa Lenardi and dentists Eddy Giarso, Hedwin Kadrianto, Rachel Emteta volunteered their time and used their expertise to support refugees at Roshan Learning Center on July 11. They conducted screenings, vital sign checks, vision tests, physical examinations, dental check-ups, and basic dental treatments. They also provided a terrific learning opportunity; clinic organizers required that would-be patients attend a seminar to learn about teeth cleaning and its benefits.


Having a health clinic day provided a useful channel for personal contact and communication between the patients and professionals, which is especially valuable among people who become used to relying information they can find online or through hearsay. Community members at the clinic were able to express their needs and health professionals were able to respond in a personalized way despite the time constraints that afternoon.

The Challenges of City Living

Awareness of urban public health issues is now more important than ever. The world is undergoing a significant growth of urban populations—more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and even more will soon—and a growing number of them are refugees. The United Nations Humans Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) estimates that there are 8.64 million refugees living in urban areas this year. Because of the difficulties cities have in providing clean water, adequate sanitary conditions, timely trash removal, and so forth, urban areas are more likely to provide fodder for illness, especially among the poor and otherwise vulnerable residents such as refugees. Lack of available and affordable health services only exacerbate the problems.

Many refugees in Indonesia choose to live in Jakarta, one of the world’s most populated cities, in part because of the presumed opportunities to access amenities available in the city. However, they quickly realize that services here are not as available as they had imagined. Healthcare providers often see refugees and asylum seekers as temporary visitors to a host country and regarded as separate from the host community. Furthermore, because they cannot work, they have limited opportunities to earn the wages that would allow them to pay for healthcare.

Accessing Local Health Services

The 1951 Refugee Convention protects refugees to have access to healthcare similar to that of the host population. In Indonesia, the most affordable health service can be accessed at puskesmas, government-run community health clinics, which provide basic care services, immunizations, prenatal care, and dental services. Though not top-tier in terms of quality in many cases, puskesmas may be the most accessible basic health service provider for both the locals and refugees. Health status of refugees can vary depending on the context surrounding their flight, lack of immunity to the diseases in their new environment, and the stress factors caused by migration, displacement, and an uncertain future. Typically, these factors converge to cause refugees to need greater-than-average medical attention.

So why are refugees not going to puskesmas when they have bronchitis, a toothache, or dengue fever? One critical barrier is language. Farsi and other language-speaking refugees face issues of communication when health professionals can’t understand the problem or explain information. This situation may result in possible misdiagnosis, patients’ noncompliance, and other medical errors. A great deal of confusion and unreliability of the public health system only leaves them vulnerable to exclusion from healthcare as well. Refugees often don’t have all the facts about what services they are allowed to receive and by whom; and providers also don’t have all the facts about refugees. Every refugee population consists of individuals with diverse backgrounds—it is rarely homogenous—and health providers need to take the time to gather the relevant information from a given refugee patient.

Next Steps

To our delight, it was not only refugees who benefited from the health clinic day. In the spirit of lifelong learning that we promote at Roshan Learning Center, our visitors also had a few things to learn from the refugees. The health professionals learned about different health conditions refugees tend to experience at high rates, such as psychological issues, weakened immune system, and nutritional deficiencies. They said they found it helpful to learn more about refugees’ living conditions and health challenges, which are compounded by general health challenges in Jakarta such as respiratory infections, waterborne diseases, dengue fever, and road traffic accidents; so they can tailor future clinic days to Jakarta refugees’ common health issues.

This is good news for Mujaba. He claims that not only will he brush his teeth properly every day, but also he will enthusiastically come if we offer another health clinic. How many teenagers look forward to a dentist’s appointment? Many thanks to the volunteer doctors and dentists who shared their expertise with us to such good end.

World Refugee Day: June 20

Let’s all work to bring a little more hope into the world.
— Heather

BBC reports that the number of displaced people is at an all-time high. There are floods and earthquakes demolishing peoples’ homes, but that’s not the real problem, in spite of the deep suffering natural disasters cause.

The real problems are human made. People are fleeing the persecution that follows the features of their face, as in the case of Hazara peoples in Afghanistan, or the beliefs they hold about the shape of a government. They will do everything in their power to move out of a war zone where death is more common than rain. They understandably want to move out of a county where a brother is hanged for becoming a Christian.

What mother wants to raise her children in a place where children are abducted simply because they are girls? What man can stand to stay in a county where his parents and relatives were burned to death because they changed religion?

What truly strikes me as tragic, though, is that numbness of mind and death of heart are considered less tragic and less compelling than physical death.

Migrants risking the waters between north Africa and southern Europe or between Myanmar and Malaysia are not going because they think it will be a nice few days on the open seas. It is certainly true that they are sometimes tricked or forced to get on boats by nefarious people smugglers, but more often than not they are just desperate to find a humane place to live.

One African woman interviewed by American radio station NPR said she wanted to get to Spain because it seems like heaven. If she got there, she thought, she could be a little bit closer to God–or at least a little further from hell.

There is nothing frivolous about leaving a place because it is hopeless. Why would she, or any other young woman, want to stay in a country where she has no hope of finding any paid work beyond prostitution? What about the woman with a master’s in civil engineering who can’t find work at home except for selling bread?

What teenage boy would want to live in a place where there is no hope of going to school, getting a diploma or any training, and getting a job so he could someday marry and provide for a family?

Governments and citizens in more affluent countries often dismiss “economic” asylum-seekers — those seeking education and jobs — as mere opportunists. While we must recognize the very complicated problems associated with job creation and the need to protect the employment of citizens in any country, it seems like there is room to discuss the problem of hopelessness and at least try to solve it.

Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day. Today is as good a day as any to say a prayer or make a contribution or send a letter to an influential person in your government on behalf of refugees. It will only take a minute and most importantly, it will take a fraction of your good fortune, whether financial or based on the gift that you can read and write, or in the fact that you have a voice in your government. Today is a good day to share our good fortune and bring a little more hope into the world.