Participants in a community health course measure the blood pressure of people at Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi. (Gushwell F. Brooks — Jesuit Refugee Service)
(Dzaleka, Malawi) October 28, 2015 — "The only thing my father left me with was this advice before he died: 'I don't have anything to give you, but I ask you to continue with your education. Education will be your mother and father when I am no longer there.’” Charles*, now 21, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after his father was assassinated for supporting a political leader. Now living in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, Charles wanted to follow his father's final guidance.
"Fortunately I had a chance to complete my secondary education here in the camp," he says. After finishing school, Charles took a course in Community Health. Under a tree, he and his fellow students were recently measuring people's blood pressure. "The objective of the course is to ensure that once we complete our training, we can assist people with their health," explains Charles. "People here at Dzaleka do not necessarily always know what affects their health. We share information with the people so that they remain healthy."
The course is part of JRS-JC:HEM (Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins), which helps refugee youth continue their education in circumstances where they normally could not. The courses are not merely academic exercises, but offer real help to many of the 25,000 refugees in the camp.
After doing the practical component of the Service Learning Track in Community Health, participants such as Charles are sufficiently skilled to assist qualified medical professionals in keeping the community in the refugee camp healthy.
"As one example, people do not know what pneumonia is or what causes it. Dzaleka gets very cold at times and people do not realize that they can prevent pneumonia in infants by dressing their babies warmly and thereby prevent infant mortality," says Charles. "We also do campaigns around the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and on how to prevent cholera," among other issues, says Charles.
Fr. David Holdcroft S.J., Regional Director of JRS Southern Africa, asked an important question at the graduation ceremony of a recent JC:HEM class. He asked, "What next?" Now that the graduates have their diplomas, what does it mean: do they wait for resettlement to another country or do they go into Malawian society and find a job?
The possibility for resettlement exists, but it is remote and a long process. Working within the mainstream economy of Malawi is impossible at present. So Holdcroft urged the graduates to re-invest their skills into Dzaleka Refugee Camp and build their community.
"When people become refugees, their access to many basic human opportunities including the right to education, self-improvement, and the dignity of work is suddenly closed," says Joe Slaven, Project Director for JRS-JC:HEM at Dzaleka. Higher education via computer learning can turn that around, even if graduates cannot leave the camp. "Every course is delivered online by a range of volunteer faculty from universities within and beyond the Jesuit Commons, and is accredited by Regis University."
"We offer all the practical support that students need to access higher education," continues Slaven. "We provide the learning space outfitted by solar electricity, computers and network access, onsite academic support and co-ordination with universities and instructors. After programs end, we offer continued encouragement and support to alumni as they go forth into the community to serve."
JRS-JC:HEM graduates also show the younger generation that the difficulties of camp life are not all there is to look forward to in future, and that people in the camp can thrive, not just survive.
"Our goal is to offer higher education to those community members who can rise above the limitations of refugee life and serve as leaders," says Slaven. "JRS-JC:HEM exists to give many brilliant people the opportunity to be their brilliant selves again."
— Adapted from articles written by Gushwell Brooks, regional information officer for JRS Southern Africa
* Name changed