Elena, a 15-year-old Honduran, wants to be president of her country, and you have to believe her. She lives with her brother Jorge (16) and her mother María (51), an ice cream seller, in the Alcobendas Refugee Reception Center (Madrid). Her excellence in school from a very young age became, however, a hardship.
In Honduras, together with Jorge, also brilliant, he attended the International School of Tegucigalpa, a center only accessible to very wealthy families or to tuition students like them, who had received a private subsidy. A gang that operates in her neighborhood thought they had money. They were threatened with death and had to hide in a city three hours from the capital. They decided to flee and settle in Spain, where they have been recognized as refugees. After missing two terms of class in Honduras, Elena and Jorge have been able to return to study and continue with their goal of becoming a neurosurgeon and she a politician. If one day he returns to Tegucigalpa, Elena says, he wants to do it to change his country, “so that no kids like us go through this.” For fear of being located by the gang members, the family has asked to hide their faces and have been given a fictitious identity in the report.
After reaching safety in Spain, where her maternal grandmother already lived, the priority for the severe María was that her children could resume their studies and continue getting the nines and tens that she demanded of them. “An 8 is a bad grade,” says Elena. “I know the children I have,” her mother answers in the Plaza de Francisco Casillas in Alcobendas, a few days before school starts. Both of them, sociable and happy in spirit, are looking forward to returning to classes.
If Elena and Jorge continue their course, they will be part of the scarce 6% of refugees who enroll in university or higher vocational training in the form of scholarships and long-term plans, something that should be promoted, according to Manal Stulgait, an Education official. from UNHCR: “These people have to be part of the world in which they live in every way,” says the expert.
UNHCR has just published a report on education, which is based on data collected in more than 70 host countries at the end of 2022. 20% of refugees live in the 46 least developed countries in the world and three out of four reside in countries of medium or low income, which makes access to education difficult. The key is, according to the report, to eliminate barriers such as the factor of nationality, the legal status of refugees, documentation, and letting them attend class.
“Learning the language of the host country is essential. If an Afghan arrives in Brazil, he has to learn Portuguese to continue his studies. If he is in Spain he has to know Spanish,” Stulgait gives as examples. The gender gap, according to the report, remains significant in some countries, but the average indicates parity. 63% of boys and 61% of girls attend primary school. In secondary school, 36% and 35%, respectively.
“Once basic needs are met, there is nothing more important than education. “It’s not just me who thinks it, it’s what families tell me.”
Manal Stulgait, UNHCR Education Officer
In cases like that of young Elena and Jorge, schooling results in faster integration in the host country. “I feel very good here,” says Jorge, compared to the United States, where they lived for six years after crossing the Rio Grande as migrants. “In Houston (Texas) they separated us by levels even though we went to the same grade. Here we are all together, I prefer it,” says this fan of a quantum physics YouTube channel. “Here the kids are more open. In the US they just want to be at home, here they go out more. “I’m believing the European dream,” this young football fan, who has changed Real Madrid for Manchester City, sarcastically concludes. “After a time in which he was the cool one in the class, I have returned to being the Jorge of before, the shy boy who gets good grades,” he adds sarcastically. “I love being with classmates from other countries and learning many things that I would not have learned in Honduras,” says Elena, a more formal student.
Bright but isolated
The case of student Massouda Kohistani, a 41-year-old Afghan refugee, is different. An activist and columnist, she fled her country in August 2021, as soon as the Taliban took power. After living for a year in Salamanca, she moved to Catalonia to pursue a master’s degree in Political Analysis and Institutional Consulting at the University of Barcelona. She is on a scholarship and values the opportunity to continue studying, but she is alone. She lives in a shared apartment in Viladecans (Barcelona). “I’m not married. I’m missing my brother, my nephew, my nieces. They are my family. “I can’t get them to meet me in Spain,” she explains. “I’m alive, but I don’t have a full life,” she says painfully, in English, on the phone.
—Have you made friends at university?
—My classmates are young, they master the language, they have no family tensions. I have many problems. In a way we are friends, but I don’t really have friends.
Trained in Political Science, Massouda worked in international organizations in Afghanistan for 12 years, was a school teacher and gave private English classes. Since the Taliban came to power, by order of the Ministry of Education, girls are prohibited from going to school and women cannot attend university. Massouda not only increases her training in Spain, but also contributes to that of some of her compatriots. Shortly after settling in Salamanca she met a family of Afghans who did not know how to read or write. Massouda taught them, in her house: “At first they went to Spanish classes and they couldn’t read what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. His life has improved since then,” she explains. Massouda intends to become a teacher again, in this case of Farsi (or Dari, as this co-official language with Pashto is called in Afghanistan), her mother tongue. “I’m going to do an exchange with Catalans who want to learn my language,” she adds.
Massouda regrets the little help he has to help his family, harassed in his country (not only are his nieces prohibited from going to school, but “they are forcing my nephew to dress in a specific way,” he details. ). “I don’t have a job in Spain to be able to live independently. The money that we students receive is insufficient,” adds this woman, very active on social networks, who goes to demonstrations so that the situation in her country does not fall into oblivion. “I can’t work as a waitress, cleaner or taking care of the elderly because I’m not physically well, I get tired,” she says. “I have to continue training. Education is very important to me. I hope it helps to get an office job or to help my country,” says this activist surrounded by books and banners in her room in Viladecans.
Unlike the vitalist Elena, still in the 4th year of ESO, who fantasizes about leading her country, about changing it completely, about “children being able to go to the park and not be in danger,” Massouda hopes that her activism and that of her colleagues , the political talks she gives, her continuous training – her full dedication to the cause against the Taliban – serve to liberate Afghanistan one day, and so that girls can return to school or university like herself.
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