Students study after class in Yambio, South Sudan, where outbreaks of violence have deterred many from enrolling in school.  (Aidan Azairwe/Jesuit Refugee Service)

An estimated 37 million children displaced by crises, war and economic strife during the past two years are unable to go to school, posing another formidable challenge as the world responds to a global refugee crisis.

They are among the 65 million displaced children between the ages of 3 and 15, according to the Overseas Development Institute. In response, nations and a global network of non-governmental organizations are trying to provide educational opportunities.

“It is grim when look at the plight of these millions of refugee children,” said Lynch School of Education Professor Dennis Shirley, who is working with the Jesuit Refugee Service to expand the number of children it educates to 220,000 by 2020.

“The fundamental question is what can be done for these young people so they do not become—really through no fault of their own—the world’s most abandoned and forgotten students,” said Shirley.

The Jesuit Refugee Service has launched the Global Education Initiative as part of its Mercy in Motion campaign, a drive to raise $35 million to support providing an additional 100,000 refugee children a curriculum that can work across cultures and languages, as well as training for the citizen-teachers required to lead classes.

Shirley has been appointed to an international advisory board of veteran field staff and administrators in the areas of refugee education and services, as well as education experts. Earlier this year, Shirley traveled to Italy to meet with the group, which is led by Rev. Joaquin “Boom” Martinez, S.J., JRS’s international education coordinator, who is based at the Jesuit Curia in Rome.

Dennis Shirley
Lynch School of Education Professor Dennis Shirley

“I was completely inspired by these educators who have been working in the Lord’s vineyards for three decades and responding to the challenges of getting these materials together and out to teachers in the field,” said Shirley.

The challenge is about building educational capacity in the Ignatian tradition in refugee camps and relocation centers in some of the most distressed regions of the world.

“We are hoping to develop a teacher-training program that can be used throughout JRS,” Fr. Martinez wrote to the group. “We are looking to incorporate Ignatian values into our teacher training program—JRS values of accompaniment, service, and advocacy. As much as this will be a basic pedagogical program, it will also serve as a formational program for our teachers, and hopefully also for the students they serve.”

In need of a flexible and responsive teacher-training program, JRS envisions a six-week course it can offer twice a year, according to Fr. Martinez. Drawn up by experts in the field, Shirley and his colleagues are charged with reviewing and fine-tuning the program based on their expertise and experience.

“In terms of teacher education, the idea is to put together teacher education materials that could be used by a refugee with an eighth grade education who is teaching children who are most likely illiterate,” said Shirley. “These materials need to serve teachers in camps or the cities where refugees settle.”

The panel will work on the curriculum this summer in hopes of providing JRS field staff with a program they can begin to field test and eventually deploy as a pilot program. The goal is to fully deploy the training program within three years.

Shirley, whose focus is on the curricula, training content and resolving cross-cultural conflicts, has worked in teacher education for 38 years, studying educational systems throughout the U.S. and the world, as well as working closely with teachers to help them improve their practical skills and conceptual knowledge.

This latest project poses some of the most significant challenges he’s seen in education. 

“We are working with issues such as displacement, trauma, language loss, and malnutrition,” said Shirley. “There is not one second I’ve spent on this where I am not thoroughly engaged because it is so meaningful. It is far and away the most meaningful project I have ever done."

“It is great to be at Boston College and do this kind of work on behalf of refugees and the people on the front lines of this crisis,” Shirley added. “I know that I am fully supported by my colleagues, my students, and the University.”

—Ed Hayward | News & Public Affairs