A Journey of Hope: Unlocking the Power of Refugee Education

Written by Cherinet Hariffo

A Journey of Hope: Unlocking the Power of Refugee Education

Written by Cherinet Hariffo
20 June 2024
Cherinet standing laughing surrounded by school children whom he is high-fiving

Imagine being just nine years old and having to leave everything you know behind—your home, your friends, even your country—because it's no longer safe. This was my reality. At a tender age, I was forced to flee my country and found myself seeking refuge in Kenya. I arrived as an unaccompanied minor, without family or friends. Vulnerable to many dangers, including child trafficking, I held on to a strong desire to learn and educate myself. I lived in a UNHCR-led safe house on the outskirts of Nairobi, where I was enrolled in Kilimani Primary School. Despite the hardships, I excelled academically thanks to the support of dedicated teachers and staff from UNHCR, HIAS, and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Living as a refugee, the barriers to education are immense. Schools are often scarce, resources are limited, and the constant upheaval of relocating disrupts any semblance of a stable learning environment. According to UNHCR, over half of the 7.1 million school-age refugee children around the world are out of school. Education is more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic.

It's a lifeline that can pull individuals, families, and entire communities out of the cycle of poverty  and crisis. It offers a pathway to integration and acceptance in host countries. So, one must ask: What would the world look like if we embraced the potential of every refugee child?

My journey continued when I was granted resettlement under the U.S. Refugee Admission Program. I received the opportunity to attend high school and catch up on my education in just two years at Lower Merion High School, earning a scholarship to attend Temple University. At Temple, I played an active role in advocating for refugee education both at my school and at the United Nations. I graduated in three years with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and a minor in Legal Studies. These experiences underscored the transformative impact of education and fueled my commitment to advocate for others like me.

Last year, I had the honor of attending the Global Refugee Forum 2023 in Geneva, where leaders and policymakers pledged to support refugee education. Yet, the reality remains grim, and progress is slow. The gap in refugee education is not closing quickly enough. This disconnect between promises made and actions taken raises a critical question: Why are we falling short when the stakes are so high? The importance of following through on these commitments cannot be overstated. Imagine the potential that remains untapped, the dreams that are deferred, and the futures that hang in the balance. By investing in refugee education, we are not only transforming individual lives but also enriching our global community.

This brings us to a pivotal point: Governments, international organizations and all stakeholders must intensify their efforts and implement the almost 1,900 pledges made during the GFR 2023. It's not enough to make pledges; we need concrete, actionable plans that sustainably increase access to quality education for all refugee children and youths.

Consider Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, which I have visited several times. Despite severe constraints, the camp is a hub of entrepreneurial spirit and community development. Refugees there are starting businesses and integrating into society. I have witnessed similar resilience in Uganda, where young refugees are not just surviving but thriving, positively impacting their host communities. We must challenge ourselves to look beyond the immediate needs of refugees and see the long-term benefits of educating this vibrant community. I believe it is time we stop seeing refugees as just recipients of aid and recognize their potential as agents of change and development.

So, what can each of us do? It starts with shifting our perception of refugees from seeing them as burdens to recognizing them as bearers of opportunities. Every refugee child sitting in a classroom could be the next great thinker, leader, or innovator who could change the world. But they need the key that education represents as we say in our Swahili “Elimu ni maisha” which means “education is life”.

Let me leave you with one quote from one of my sources of inspiration of all time: Nelson Mandela once wisely stated that "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." So let me ask you: Are we ready to arm the future generations with this weapon?

Cherinet Hariffo
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About the author

Cherinet Hariffo is a former refugee from Ethiopia, now a dedicated advocate and champion for education and United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Currently, he serves as a Youth Representative to the United Nations ECOSOC and DGC for the Institute for Conscious Global Change. He also holds the position of Youth Policy Advisor at the Permanent Mission of Djibouti to the United Nations in New York. 

Hariffo graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and a minor in Legal Studies. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Public Administration at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels School of Government. Throughout his academic and professional journey, Hariffo has worked with numerous multilateral organizations to advocate for equitable education access for refugees and inclusive youth engagement in decision-making processes, both globally and within the United Nations. 

Hariffo's commitment to education and youth advocacy has taken him to 27 countries, where he has interacted with young people, advocated for education, and met with various heads of state and leaders of multilateral organizations to advance the SDG 2030 agenda. He has been involved in numerous youth policy advisory roles in North America and Africa, collaborating with organizations such as UN agencies, Theirworld, UNDGC, and UN ECOSOC, among others.

In the spirit of responsibility-sharing, meaningful participation, and a multi-stakeholder approach in the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees, some of the content on this platform, including this article, is written and submitted by States and other stakeholders themselves. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNHCR and its employees. While we have made an attempt to ensure that the information contained on this platform has been obtained from reliable sources, UNHCR is not responsible for any errors or omission, or for the results obtained from the use of this information.