Sky School: Our journey to education for peace
What is Sky School?
The idea behind Sky School is not complicated. Sky School provides education to displaced youth through blended learning (online and in-person). The modular courses are specifically developed with displaced youth in mind. To deliver courses, Sky School partners with existing local organisations which provide safe classrooms and shed light on the local challenges potential students face.
Globally, 84% of high-school-aged youth are enrolled in secondary school. Within refugee populations, this decreases to just 23%. As the level of education increases, the numbers drop drastically. A mere 1% of refugees attend a university or college. The founders of Sky School recognised that this is a need that has yet to be adequately met. Before launching Sky School, co-founders Polly Akhurst and Mia Eskelund worked at the UWC International office; they worked on the UWC refugee initiative that offers scholarships to a maximum of 100 students a year. During this process, they realised that for every student awarded a scholarship, hundreds of enthusiastic and promising applicants had to be turned away. The UWC Refugee Initiative drew the attention of the UNHCR, which struck Polly and Mia. In Mia’s words:
“If the UNHCR was interested in an initiative that was going to send maximum 100 students a year to UWC, then that must be because there’s really nothing else.”
Born to parents of two different ethnic groups in Burundi, Daniel’s childhood involved discrimination and conflict with others in the community, including his own family. Refusing to join a militia group in an area of high political tension, he was left with only one choice - to flee for his safety. When Daniel visited UWCSEA East, he said, “I never had the idea to leave my country until the day I found my life in trouble.”
Upon arriving in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, Daniel took every opportunity to grow as a learner and leader. He made himself known to every organisation and initiative that caught his attention. Despite having had very little English language education in Burundi, he quickly learned English through online courses such as Cousera. Soon, Daniel was offered a position as an interpreter for the UNHCR. But through his work with the UNHCR and other refugee aid organisations, he realised that something significant was missing. Despite working to serve refugees, Daniel felt many of these organisations failed to put the needs of refugees at the forefront of their work. There were very few opportunities for the refugees to provide feedback. This prevented the organisations from developing strategies that aligned with the wants and needs of refugees. Not only did this limit the effectiveness of the work these organisations were carrying out, but it also took empowerment out of the equation.
So, when Daniel first heard about Sky School, his hope was tainted by a sense of scepticism that he had learnt to carry with him. But after talking to Polly and Mia, he realised that refugee voices could not only be heard but would also be valued. After all, Sky School recognises that refugees are best placed to understand the challenges they themselves face, and implement workable solutions in their communities. Daniel agreed to help set up the first Sky School learning hub in Kakuma Camp. Daniel has since been resettled to Canada, but his involvement with Sky School continues: in June 2019, three years after first contacting Polly and Mia, he contributed to the Living Peace and Well-Being curriculum hackathon (a two-day curriculum building event bringing together refugees, educators and students) held here at UWCSEA East.
Why Cultivate Agency?
For many refugees, especially those who have fled conflict, their hope is that they will one day return to their homes. But that is only half the battle. Back home, they will face the daunting challenge of rebuilding their communities. But, how can a returning displaced population prevent history from repeating? Sky School believes part of the answer is empowering displaced youth and equipping them with the skills to create positive change and inspire others to do the same, building strong, engaged communities.
Although Sky School was only founded three and a half years ago (in 2016), the positive impacts of the courses are already evident. During the most recent curriculum hackathons, we met Saad, an Iraqi refugee who graduated from the Social Entrepreneurship course. After graduating from this course in Jordan, he facilitated the Peace-building course before being resettled to Melbourne. In July 2019, we were privileged to contribute to the Ethical Leadership hackathon along with Saad at UWCSEA East.
Recently, Polly interviewed Mofti, a graduate of both the Social Entrepreneurship course and the Peace-building course in Kakuma Camp. He spoke about the changes in his mindset and the actions he has taken as a result of his Sky School experience. He attributes his new habit of “[looking] for any gap that there is in the community” to the Social Entrepreneurship course. What he learned prompted him to set up a drink kiosk and he also strives to get others in his community involved in taking action: “If I am not managing to fill [a gap] I give ideas to others so that it can be filled.” When asked about the problems he has worked to solve, Mofti brought up an example of how he has used the skills he learnt in the Peace-building course to resolve conflict in the camp. When witnessing a dispute between two people queueing for water, Mofti helped them reconcile by taking them both aside and reminding them that, “Each of us needs water,” and that arguing is not helpful.
Mofti’s reflections show us that displaced youth do not have to wait until they are back home before they can work to rebuild their communities. This is why Sky School courses are developed to support and encourage students to gradually apply what they are learning to make change in their everyday lives.
Although Sky School is currently working on getting accreditation to create opportunities for graduates to pursue university or fulfilling employment, this is not the end goal. Secondary education is not only a stepping stone on the way to university and employment. Education is a lifelong process of continuously pursuing knowledge, building deeper understandings of the world around us and encouraging others to do the same. This applies to all of us, from those in Kakuma Camp to us, here in Singapore.
On the Writers
Combined, we have been at UWCSEA East for 16 years where we have each embraced a wide range of opportunities. However, our involvement with the Sky School student group has given us a sense of purpose and conviction we have never felt before. For the past three years, we have been working to support Sky School as part of the student group at UWCSEA East. During this time, we have lead the student group to not only support Sky School, but also to build the group members’ capacities as changemakers and advocates for refugee education. We have also helped develop five of Sky School’s ten units.
Being in Grade 12, our involvement with the student group is drawing to a close, but we have no intention of concluding our work with Sky School; stay tuned for our article on our plans for the future!
For more information on Sky School and the student group: