A school for refugees, by refugees
An unwelcome guest.
For much of his life, this was how Najib Akbari has felt, growing up in Iran as a refugee.
A child of Afghans who fled Afghanistan for Iran to escape political unrest and the Soviet Union invasion in 1979, Najib grew up a “second-class citizen” with no rights, and discrimination from Iranians, who did not want them in the country, was common.
“I lived there for about 35 years but I had no ID card, no rights as a citizen. We were only allowed to work jobs that were very hard and Iranians wouldn’t do them,” he says. “They thought that if we were living in Iran and working, we were stealing away their rights.”
Enduring the discrimination became second nature for Najib — but he baulked when his children were subjected to the same treatment.
“When I sent my son to school for the first time, one day he came home and was very sad and was crying. When I asked him what happened, he said that the principal kicked him and told him ‘Afghan, why don’t you go back to your country?’”
That was when Najib decided he and his family had to leave Iran.
Life in limbo
Najib and his family initially returned to Afghanistan, but with the country mired in conflict, they decided to leave, this time for Indonesia.
There are about 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, and about half are of Afghan origin, according to UNHCR. Most hope to be resettled in a third country.
“When we first came here, we were in a bad situation. Because we were in a country about which we had no information. Its language was different, its culture and even its weather was different, and it was always rainy. We had moved away from friends and family,” says Najib.
“Especially for my wife who used to cry during the day. I was also in a tough position but I acted strong because there was no other choice.”
Refugees cannot work in Indonesia and there are limited options for refugee children to attend local schools. Stuck in a passive, uncertain situation, many lose hope.
Creating their own solutions
Determined to avoid such a fate, a group of refugees in Puncak took action. In 2015, they scraped together their resources to set up a school — the Refugee Learning Center.
“Our only goal and mission is to provide education, basic education, and prepare the refugee children for their future,” says Abdullah Sarwari, who was only 18 when he helped start RLC.
“We’re also trying to provide a normal life as much as possible for them. They come and they socialise, they have fun, they make friends, and they try to forget all the worry, and stress, and tension in their life.”
In the beginning, refugees pooled money to rent the space needed for the school, despite having little of their own. Then Same Skies, a non-governmental organisation, stepped in to support the refugees with training and financial support for six months.
Today, RLC runs on donations collected through online fundraising campaigns. From 35 students in the beginning, its volunteers — refugees dedicated to helping their community — now provide education to around 280 refugee children and adults.
Volunteers also come from outside the refugee community to teach at RLC, both in person or online from anywhere in the world. Some have also held workshops on painting, writing and photography for the refugees, while others organised medical and dental check-ups.
Keeping hopes alive
The reality of resettlement is grim: in Indonesia, only 556 of around 14,000 refugees were resettled in a third country in 2018, according to the UNHCR.
Keeping feelings of apathy and hopelessness at bay is a never-ending task for RLC’s teachers, even as they battle worries of their own.
In 2018, RLC started working with external volunteers to prepare some of the refugees to sit for GED (General Educational Development) tests, an internationally-recognised assessment framework. Those who pass the test will be certified to have high school-level academic skills, which can help them earn admission into university-level programmes globally.
Under the programme, which is a collaboration with an external partner, the refugees receive online mentoring from volunteers all over the world, who are familiar with the GED framework.
Since then, the refugees who passed the tests have started to help others in RLC prepare for the tests, paying forward the skills they have acquired to their community.
RLC has also started offering Bahasa Indonesia classes to the refugee community. “Between the refugee and local community, I feel like there’s a language barrier which stops the refugee from having an honest and open interaction with Indonesians,” says Abdullah.
“If you try your best to learn the language of a particular place or country, it really helps make things easier.”
Najib is among those who signed up for classes, although he admits progress has been slow. But language barrier aside, life has improved in some ways for him and his family.
“When we were in Iran, we had always seen those discriminatory eyes. What surprised me was that we always thought all the countries treat the Afghans the same way [Iranians did] but Indonesians are better,” he says.
He adds that he did not move to Indonesia for financial gain. “I only came here to go somewhere where I am treated like a human being and to be no different to other human beings,” he says.
As the finance manager at RLC, Najib has also found purpose in being part of the cause to support refugees as they adapt to life in limbo.
“Many people ask me why I put time here and work, and I tell them that it gives me joy and peace. If I can do it for my own children, I can do it for other children too,” he says.
The centre, he says, is an opportunity for refugees to show that they “are not a burden”. “If they have the opportunity they can accomplish big and great things like this,” says Najib.
What skills can we share with refugees to help them build resilience and take control of their lives? Tell us by leaving a comment!