“I believe that to use a pen against the enemy is better than shooting them with a gun. I believe that to seek dialogue is stronger than silence. Silence will not let the world know what is happening to the Karen people.” – excerpt from “This I Believe,” a refugee student essay

By Autumn Jones (’10)

Silent no more, refugees in Mae La Camp on the Thai-Burma border now use pens against the enemy – in a virtual sense – as they pursue higher education from universities around the world. Mark Beattie, director of distributive learning in the School of Professional Studies, taught one of the first classes. “I began to think about it as apostolic mission,” he said. “I wanted to work in this arena, to provide education for those who don’t have equal access.”

Initially launched by Australia Catholic University, the project aptly titled Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins now rests in the hands of Mary McFarland, former dean of Gonzaga’s School of Professional Studies. McFarland will work in collaboration with other Jesuit universities and institutions to provide a rigorous online education for international refugees in displacement camps.

The project stretches from Thailand to Kenya, Latin America to Australia. McFarland’s interest in the project ignited at a meeting in Denver in 2006. “Michael Smith, a New Zealand came to ask our help in launching an online program on the Thai-Burma border for Burmese refugees,” she said. “He talked about these incredible people in the camps who just stand around and life goes by because they can’t work; they don’t have access to education. And that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I thought, ‘That would be what hell on earth would be like. If you are smart and you had energy, but your life circumstance forced you into this contained area and you couldn’t do anything with your mind.’ ” McFarland took a sabbatical to research the possibilities. The result was the collaborative creation of the Jesuit Commons. In May 2010, she retired from her position as dean to continue building the program.

“We’ve had a long-term commitment to students who may come to education through different avenues because of all that life has brought them,” said McFarland. “It got us thinking intentionally about what we could do to serve the needs of the world. What did we need to do from a global context?”

The students are held to the same rigorous standards as Gonzaga’s students on campus in Spokane. Although they had minimal exposure to computers before starting their coursework, they now complete on-line discussion postings, assignments, journals and reflective exercises. More than a dozen GU faculty members have volunteered to teach in this program on their own time. Another 45 or so professors have indicated that they want to participate in some way.

Beattie’s course, Leadership Theory, was designed as a demanding eight-week course, but logistical headaches pushed the timeframe to nearly a year. “We had to close the study center a number of times,” said Beattie. “They couldn’t study if there was a U.N. head count. The study center was infested with snakes once or twice. There were other times the refugees were forced to leave the camps. We had to wait it out. There was nothing we could do about it.”

In his teaching, Beattie focused on the interior identity of each student. “The refugees needed an identity, a belonging, an understanding of who they are separate from an ID card, a passport from one country or the other,” he said. “They are not a refugee number. Our goal was to give them a grounding. We wanted them to really understand themselves as leaders.”

The communications tower at the Mae La Camp is nicknamed the Tower of Hope. Yet, the logistics prove the biggest challenge time and again: getting the Internet in, finding a power source and setting up a Local Area Networks (LAN) to house the wealth of materials. Solutions to these issues must be found before courses can be fully developed, said Beattie. Another challenge is computer literacy. “We had experience teaching well-versed, computer savvy graduate students,” said Beattie. “The refugees were first-time computer users.”
McFarland will remain at Gonzaga while she works to launch similar programs in the Kakuma Camp in Kenya and the Dzaleka Camp in Malawi. Kakuma is home to over 60,000 refugees and Dzaleka to 16,000. Refugees may come from neighboring villages or the far reaches of countries beyond. Future plans include discussions of this type of education in Latin and South America.

“It has to be sustainable, scalable and transferable,” she said. If we can come up with a model that can transfer from inner-city Chicago where there is a need, to Colombia where there are over 300,000 displaced people and we can scale our model to meet the need in each area, we will truly have a lasting impact.”

“This educational process should create Karen [Thai-Burma border] solutions for Karen problems and Malawi solutions for Malawi problems,” echoed Beattie. “One size will not fit all and listening will make sure we are on the right track for each location we work with.”

In early August, 16 Burmese refugees proudly walked with a diploma in liberal studies. Their coursework nearly equaled a year of study at Gonzaga. While not a full degree, the higher-education certificate will help them to access future higher education opportunities after peace comes to the region. For now, they carry with them a new understanding of self and the courage to continue toward their goals and dreams. “The students needed a legitimacy, an identification that they completed the coursework at the level of Gonzaga quality,” said Beattie. “We developed a plan to be able to do that.”

The video below was created by Ian Roeber (’09) about the Jesuit Commons’ work at the Thai Burma border.

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