Doha Debates– Don't settle for a Divided World
Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation
Learn more at
Podcast / April 08 2022

Part IV: Pursuing education

select player

Jennifer Roberts, a senior education officer with UNHCR, talks to host Nelufar Hedayat about the 10 million refugee children worldwide who lack access to education, what it takes to educate displaced people and how some host countries are working to meet the challenge.

Next, Nelufar speaks with Dr. Saleema Rehman, an Afghan refugee who received her medical degree in Pakistan. Dr. Rehman talks about what it was like to attend school as a refugee and the pride she has now that she’s able to give back to her community.

Finally, Nelufar speaks with Academy Award-winning actor Cate Blanchett about her experiences as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador advocating for refugees. Blanchett explains that educating refugee children and young adults provides opportunities to be leaders in rebuilding their homelands while also benefiting their host countries.

Listener challenge

During this season of Course Correction, we’re challenging you to reflect on different aspects of the refugee experience and share your thoughts with us.

For today’s episode: While not all of us have experience as a refugee, many of us know what it’s like to attend a new school. What’s something that a teacher said or did that made you feel welcome and accepted? How did that change your perception of the school? What are some tactics that could make it easier for newcomers to integrate into schools?

Please share with us via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or tweet directly to our host, Nelufar Hedayat.


Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.

I met this young boy in Lebanon. It was back in 2015, I think. And he had come on a visit, and then it was unsafe for him to return to Syria with his mother. And he was working in a bakery. And he was so bright and so sharp, and he wanted to be a pilot. And of course, you know, as the days and months and years roll on — and he was 14 at the time — that becomes more impossible. And all of those children, you know, the stateless children I’ve met, of course, you know, their chance at education is even more precarious — that they want to be doctors, they want to be nurses, they want to be lawyers and teachers and architects. 


You’re listening to Course Correction, the podcast from Doha Debates where we challenge ourselves to change the world. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. The voice you just heard is from actor Cate Blanchett. 

CATE BLANCHETT: It is such an important global solution in keeping children in education for as long as possible — you know, refugee children, because they are the ones who are going to know how to restructure and rebuild. And we have a responsibility, a global responsibility, to help them do just that. 


NELUFAR: Later on in the program, you’ll hear more of my conversation with her where we talk about her role as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and her efforts to advocate for better education for refugees. 

As a reminder, UNHCR is the United Nations refugee agency that protects people forced to flee their homes from conflict and persecution. They’ve been our partners for this special season, which is solely focused on the stories of refugees and the challenges they face as they navigate lives of displacement. Their goal is to find a home, either in their country of origin or as permanent residents or citizens in a new country. But we should note that finding a home — as in a new physical space to live — is only one part of the equation. Home in the larger sense means a sense of belonging and finding a place where you have a strong foundation with real opportunities to advance your own life and that of your family. Admittedly, there are many ways to define what that means, but at its core, the aim isn’t just to get a person into a new physical structure — but the aim is for self-sufficiency, for refugees to become valued members of whichever communities they wind up settling in. And at the center of the strategy is education. It’s a massive issue.


Globally, there are around 26 million refugees, and of those, 20 million are under UNHCR’s mandate. And about half of that number are children under 18. So we’re talking about, around 10 million children and young people in need of access to education. 


NELUFAR: This is Jennifer Roberts. She’s a senior education officer with UNHCR. She’s providing us with the figures from UNHCR’s most recent global trends report. Now, although these figures don’t include the latest number of around 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine over the past month — half of whom who are children — they give us an indication of the scale of the education crisis for refugees. 


JENNIFER ROBERTS: And based on the data that we have available, around half — at 52 percent — of refugee children are attending school. And, and this is way below the averages for children globally, but also often refugee children lag behind the enrollments of the host country children. And we see around primary education, around 63 percent are enrolled. But this drops dramatically for secondary learners. So as children get older, their access to education becomes more and more curtailed, and only 32 percent of refugee children of that age group are in secondary school, amongst the groups that are at greatest risk of being left behind. 


NELUFAR: So the numbers show a need for improvement, and moving the dial requires a multi-prong approach based on the situation on the ground. Some schools are constructed inside refugee camps. But oftentimes, the agency works to find ways to expand existing schools, both in the camps and in the surrounding areas. The goal is to integrate students as much as possible. 


JENNIFER: We really advocate that refugee children follow the curriculum of the host country, because this provides stability and it provides a quality framework — but also access to the exams and accreditation, so that the learning that they have when they are in those settings can be accredited, can mean something — either for them progressing to higher levels of education or when they go home, that they have official documented proof of their education journey. 


NELUFAR: The UNHCR has honed in on trying to prevent dropouts. One program they’ve implemented is called Educate a Child, which is targeted at primary school children and overcoming barriers to get them into school. And for 30 years, the agency has run the DAFI scholarship program, which focuses on getting refugees into advanced degrees. But the work isn’t limited to expanding access and opportunity, says Roberts. 


JENNIFER: There’s the technical side, but then there’s also the human side. And looking at all of those facets of what it takes to make a successful education experience. 


NELUFAR: Refugee students face a host of challenges once they get to school, and it’s not just the academic stuff. Learning how to interact with kids, figuring out how to dress so you look normal and even learning the local slang or getting your caregiver to give you the toys everyone is playing with — it’s all part of the fitting-in process. 


JENNIFER: There are difficulties that refugee children face because they are refugees. And there are also difficulties that they face that are similar to those of foreign children, and also of children who are impoverished or marginalized in the host community. And they have these sort of three layers of disadvantage that they face. So what’s really specific to them as refugees is often the trauma that they have faced when fleeing, the fact that their previous education levels may not be recognized or that they don’t have the documentation that’s needed, but also the uncertainty that many refugees flee with, with the hope that they will return fairly soon. But often this isn’t the case. And so people are sort of living in an emotional limbo and a familial uncertainty. And people’s families may be split up — they may not have the necessary support structures if their parents don’t speak the language that’s used in schools. 


NELUFAR: So a lot of work goes into figuring out how to make a more welcoming environment. This can mean financial assistance or increasing the cultural literacy of teachers, some of whom may suddenly be teaching a class where half of the students are refugees. 


JENNIFER: So it’s really important to think about how we prepare teachers to deal with that, with the linguistic challenges, the support that they need to give those children, but also the understanding that differences in practices — and even just silly little things like the way children signal to the teacher that they can answer a question — in some countries, children will snap their fingers. And then if that’s not the practice in that school or that country, those children may be ridiculed — but they think that they are showing enthusiasm. And so it’s really about understanding both the educational challenges that children face in integrating, but also the social. 


NELUFAR: Implementing these programs can be difficult, but they are also critical towards the ultimate goal of getting refugees to a place where they’re no longer in need. And as we’ll hear, when host communities give refugees a chance to succeed, they’re likely to repay that debt many times over. This brings us to today’s featured refugee voice. 


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My great-grandfather was a refugee, my father is a refugee, I am a refugee, my nephew, nieces are refugee, and I don’t want to see our coming generations as refugee. 


NELUFAR: This is Dr. Saleema Rehman. 

SALEEMA REHMAN: I am a doctor — first Afghan woman doctor in my community.


NELUFAR: It’s an amazing achievement, even more so when you hear her story. Dr. Rehman’s family history is both dramatic and tragic, and one that I know all too well. Both of her families fled Afghanistan to escape the violence between the Soviets and the mujahedeen. 


There’s been a lot of bombing going on in villages, and in some parts they just cannot survive. The farms have been destroyed, their food storages have been destroyed, and I think this is one tactic of the Soviets to destroy food, to try and burn the crops just before harvest time. 


NELUFAR: My parents left Afghanistan fleeing the civil war there in the ’90s. My larger family became scattered all over the world. We left behind everything we knew with hopes for a safer — even if unknown — future. Our main objective was to get away from our embattled country. We left with the little that we had. Saleema’s family, again like mine, escaped across the border to Pakistan, where camps were constructed to house the nearly 3 million Afghan refugees that arrived during the war. At the time, her father was only 13. 


SALEEMA: He left everything behind and seek refuge in Pakistan, survived the refugee camp along with other thousands of Afghan refugees, and at that time they had very limited access to education and basic facilities. And the reason for their migration was partly due to the war and also not having much facilities. 


NELUFAR: And this is where our stories diverge. My family moved away to the UK, while Saleema’s remained in Pakistan. Years later, while still living in the camp, Saleema’s father met her mother, and they decided to start a family. In 1991, Saleema’s mother went into labor. Her only option was to use the camp’s limited medical facility. It was going to be tough under normal circumstances, and in this instance, it turned out to be nearly fatal. 


SALEEMA: For my birth, my mother faced severe complications, and my father did not expect that I would survive. And he wrote to himself that if the baby will survive, he will ensure to make the baby a doctor, regardless of their gender. Because at that time, my father realized the importance of education and the importance of having a doctor in our community, so that no other refugee woman has to face this kind of difficulty in future. 


NELUFAR: Though it may have been the will of her father, there would be many challenges for Saleema to actually fulfill that destiny. The first was surviving poverty. 


SALEEMA: Growing up, I have seen that we were having very difficult lives than others. We were living in a mud house with no proper electricity, gas, water or proper sanitation, and we were living in a one-room apartment. We were eight family members, and the life was so difficult.


NELUFAR: And for Saleema, she had the added burden of overcoming the patriarchal structure of her community in exile. 


SALEEMA: I am from a Turkmen community. This is a much conservative community. Here, women don’t have freedom for their expression, freedom to make choices, and they are the most neglected and the vulnerable part of our population. So they always rely on their men, and they suppress their desires, and they are not allowed to walk out of their homes. So these are all things, these factors in a male-dominating society makes women more vulnerable, and they are not able to live their dreams. 


My journey to get an education, I have faced several barriers and challenges, either in the forms of cultural barriers, social and financial, and related to being a refugee. These are all things were very hard for me, because the most important one was to break the barriers of being a Turkmen, from belonging to a community where women and girls are not allowed to go to school and to get education, to become something in their lives because girls are not given choices. For example, they can’t choose colors of their own clothes. So these are the small things in which they can’t make their own choices. So literacy rate in our community is very, very low. 


So the first challenge, and the most important challenge, was to overcome the community pressure. My community was demanding an explanation from my father that why you are letting your girl to learn, to get higher education.


NELUFAR: After a few years living in the camp, the family moved to a small town in Pakistan to start a new life. Things improved, but other challenges presented themselves. 


SALEEMA: We were living along with the locals, and I have seen while growing up that I had friends among Afghans as well as locals. I came to know that I am different from locals, because in schools, I was the only refugee girl. 


NELUFAR: But despite being an outsider, Saleema says her experience was mostly positive. In fact, it was the generosity of her host community that allowed her to continue on her journey to becoming a doctor. 


SALEEMA: I’ve always felt welcomed by our host community. My teachers were very supportive, and the government of Pakistan has provided us with the opportunities so that I’ve got a single seat in the whole province, Punjab, which was reserved for Afghan refugees, to become a doctor, although I had to compete for that single seat. But eventually I was able to get that seat. And then without that seat, I was not able to become a doctor in a host country. So we, as refugees, need more opportunities and equal rights so that we can fulfill our potential to become something valuable. 


NELUFAR: You were seeing around you women suffering in ways that were preventable. How typical was that of the people that you were interacting with? Was it typical that women were being underserved in a unique way? 


SALEEMA: Yes. In our community, women are not allowed to go out of their home. And moreover, poverty makes the people in my community to choose food over their illnesses, and they don’t spend money on women’s health, and women are neglected in our area. So every time, woman has to make a sacrifice to make things easier and to become a doctor in a community where people have no awareness about health, and they don’t have awareness about the importance of mental well-being. It’s very crucial in our community. So I’ve become a doctor to bring a difference in their views about the women’s health, so that they can get help easily. 


NELUFAR: From the way you started to where you are, most people cannot imagine the kind of growth. Sometimes I often have to explain to my friends who don’t know refugees, who don’t listen to the news or understand — that if I am living, breathing, feeding myself; if I am healthy, if I am able to work, that is a miracle — because of what I have experienced, because of what I have seen. Talk to me a little bit about the expectations that people have of refugees that we must be perfect


SALEEMA: Yes, you are really right. And I think that now we are making an example for others who think that we can’t do anything being a refugee. So in my community, young girls are getting inspired and now I have seen, I have experienced that more families are letting their girls get education. So this is a very positive development in our area. 


NELUFAR: How do you see the world viewing the issue of refugees, especially when they’re trying to establish a new life in a new country? 


SALEEMA: Most of the time refugees are being taken as are burden when they move to other country. I think they are not burden; they are an asset. They can be a useful member of the society that they are living. I think that we should provide them opportunities like — for example, I have become a doctor in a host community, and I was able to serve during the pandemic in one of the largest public-sector hospital in Pakistan where refugees and locals both were getting treatment, and I was on the frontline working shoulder to shoulder with my local doctors, and I was serving. And that was the time when I realized that this is the time to give back to my host community, when everyone is scared of COVID. And I think this is a bit of my example — with my example, we can bring change in minds about a refugee to be a burden. They can become the useful member of the society. And locals will also accept that they are also working really hard, and they are like one of us. They can also do something valuable in our communities. 


NELUFAR: That’s Dr. Saleema Rehman, talking to me from Pakistan, where I’m excited to announce she’s recently opened a clinic for women and hopes to expand her care to refugees and other women in her area. One more note about educating girls in different circumstances: Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in Doha about the challenges of educating girls in Afghanistan. She spoke about this being a problem that requires a global solution. 


We should not treat education as an issue in isolation. It’s intertwined and connected to many other factors that we talk about, from climate change to poverty to gender discrimination. And these — while all of these issues impact education for children, especially girls’ education, but at the same time, when we have, when we educate children, it can help us to address these issues. 


NELUFAR: You can hear more from my conversation with Malala in this feed, as we’ll be dropping our Doha Debates town hall later this week. 


So how do we get more into this pipeline? It’s an issue that Cate Blanchett has been looking into. Blanchett is an Academy Award-winning actor who also serves as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. She successfully leverage her platform to raise awareness of those who are forcibly displaced. When we connected this March, she told me why she was so drawn to the issue of refugees. 


CATE: Education is about opening one’s mind, isn’t it? Opening one’s heart to different stories, to different pieces of information, for different ways of looking at the world. You know, I think about learning geography. I think about learning history. You learn history — your own history and the history of other cultures — so that you’re not doomed to repeat the terrible mistakes that we’ve made in the past. And so I think that as a Goodwill Ambassador — it’s not so much about educating, but it’s allowing people to connect to the human face in an impartial, nonpolitical way, because I think that’s what the UN stands for, isn’t it? It’s sort of international human cooperation, and that’s why I’m so in awe of the UN. They work towards the preservation of our best selves, and to try and stop and heal conflict. And so to work with the UNHCR has been a really powerful privilege, and has enabled me to meet, you know, some incredible people along the way who have given me hope. 


NELUFAR: The United Nations estimates that about 5 percent of refugees ever make it to higher education. That’s a shocking statistic. Why is it important for us to work on that and to make sure more and more refugees get to higher education, not just primary and secondary? 


CATE: Well, I think it’s exactly the same reason why, you know, I want my children to get to higher education: so they have greater opportunities and so they can reach their capacity. You see children, and they are greatly affected by the environments in which they grow up. And when you — we’ve all seen how uncertainty can affect our lives, even for two years. And so not being able to reach fulfillment can lead to great frustration. And I think that that only compounds the global problems. I mean, yes, and as you say — you know, enrollment for refugees in tertiary education has reached around 5 percent. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was up from 1 percent only a few years ago. So, I mean, they’ve, they’ve had a roadmap, really, for the year 2030, which of course, is very close. The ambition is that 15 percent of refugees will be enrolled in higher education by 2030. And that is going to benefit everybody, because as I said, you know, they are ambitious, capable people, you know, like — just like everybody else. Unfortunately, we still have to say that, you know? The privileged, you know, white outlook is that, you know, you can often sort of forget that people who don’t look like you or that haven’t, you know, that live in a different culture or speak a different language is somehow different organisms. But they’re not. We’re all flesh and blood with a lot to offer. And that has been my experience, time and time again with the refugees I’ve met. And as I say, you know, they are the people — most of the refugees are either internally displaced, or displaced in neighboring countries, because, as we’re seeing in the Ukraine, they are proud of being Ukrainian. They are passionate about their country, just like we’re passionate about the countries that we’re all from. And they want to return, and they want to rebuild. But when the children are out of education for a long time, they lose that opportunity. And that benefits no one. 


NELUFAR: Why do you bother doing this? You have a lovely life. I’ve been bingeing your movies for the last two weeks, because I knew I was going to be speaking with you. You know, you don’t have to do this, Cate. Why do you choose to speak up for people like me? Why do it? 


CATE: Well, my profession is a human profession, and it’s all about connecting with an audience. And that’s a very powerful thing, I think, when you were standing on stage and you complete a circle with a bunch of strangers sitting in the dark, sharing a story. And I have always found — it’s like the old adage, “You ask a busy person to do something. It gets done.” The more you do, the more you’re capable of doing. The more you connect, the bigger your heart grows. It’s like, you know, you read your children the story of the Grinch, you know —  don’t want to become a small-hearted person. I don’t want to live my life that way. And I just, I don’t know — I’ve found that every time I’ve educated myself on the experiences of other people, when I’ve connected to people who’ve had experiences outside my own, my life has become richer. It’s sometimes become more painful. But it’s made me more active. 


Like, for example, meeting a young pregnant woman in Jordan who was walking for two hours so that she could go to university, she was a DAFI scholar. And you know, it’s humbling and edifying, and it makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. And it also makes you grateful for what you have, and leads you to want to share what you’ve got — whether it’s time, whether it’s money, whether it’s energy, whether it’s your network. You know, there’s many, many things that we can share. And I think that I want to live a compassionate life, you know, as much as I can, you know? And I’m no saint, you know? [Laughs.] But I think the more people who do the little bit that they can, and I think that that’s something that often people do feel is that — what can I do? You know, “I haven’t got a lot of money,” or “I haven’t got a lot of access,” or “I haven’t got a lot of time.” There are so many ways to participate in life, and the challenges of life. And global displacement is a challenge. And it’s one that if we all chip away a little bit at and and break down the barriers of misinformation and misunderstanding, then maybe we can one day find a more lasting solution for it. 


NELUFAR: Cate Blanchett, thank you so much for speaking with me on Course Correction


CATE: Thank you. 


NELUFAR: Too often when you hear from people like me or Dr. Saleema Rehman, whom you heard a moment earlier, you’re hearing the wrong person. We are the winners of the battle to get a good education as a refugee. We had the right opportunities offered, and we fought tooth and nail, often against cultural practices, often alone, to get to the place where we were happy and able to live a fulfilling life. The folks I wish you could hear from are those that had big dreams just like us, who would be able to be as successful, if not more than us. Yet, because of any number of issues — access to education, the refusal of host nations to help out or even because they didn’t get the help in the way that they needed due to disability or other issues — they never reach their full potential. I have left being a refugee behind and now am a British Afghan, and I love what I have been able to do here in the UK. But it all started with a space of calm and the belief in me that a good education provides. 


For today’s listener challenge, we’re going to focus on — what else? but education. While we might not all have the experience of being a refugee, we all know what it’s like to be in a new school. What’s something the teacher said or did that made you feel welcome and accepted? How did that change your perception of the school? What are some of the things that work, or that we should be doing to make it easier for newcomers to better integrate into our schools? That’s the challenge, and we want to hear your stories. Share your thoughts with us @DohaDebates on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Or you can tweet me directly: I’m @Nelufar, and I always love hearing from you. 


Next week on Course Correction, our series continues as we follow along the challenges refugees and displaced people face when they attempt to integrate into new lives. 


When I got my Canadian citizenship, the world started to see me differently, but nothing changed. I am the same person with the same education, with the same credentials, with the same soul, with the same heart. Why did they recognize my humanity based on this document? 


NELUFAR: That’s next time on Course Correction


Course Correction is hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from Foreign Policy. And of course, we want to thank our partners at UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, for helping make this season possible. Special thanks to everyone on their goodwill ambassador team for connecting us with Cate Blanchett. Our producers include Manveena Suri and Claudia Teti. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. This show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation. Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.