Jamiya Project Helping Syrian Refugees: An Interview with Paul O’Keefe

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SEATTLE —  The Jamiya Project reconnects Syrian refugees with European universities and Syrian academics to provide access to education using new education technologies. Online pilot courses in Applied IT and Global Studies have just wrapped up in the Amman and Za’atari camps, in Jordan. Recently, The Borgen Project had the opportunity to speak with Paul O’ Keefe, an academic advisor with the Jamiya Project, to find out more about the organization and where it is to go from here.

In May 2016, O’Keefe and Zsuzsanna Pásztor produced a paper on seven displaced Syrian academics beginning work again. Syrian Academics in Exile was published by New Research Voices.

The Borgen Project: What is your role with the Jamiya Project?

O’Keefe: Currently, I am an academic advisor and researcher. My background is in higher education for development, so I lead our mentor program and academic network. In mid-January, we completed our first pilot courses in Jordan, so now is a very exciting time for us. Next, we will reflect on the results of the pilot courses and research the design of a new and improved model for delivering accessible and relevant higher education to Syrian refugees.

TBP: What sparked your passion toward helping displaced people gain access to education?

O’Keefe: Before starting my Ph.D., I worked in Thailand with voluntary services on a human rights documentation project. The experience really opened my eyes to see the extent [to]which knowledge and education can empower people living in marginalized communities. It can really improve their lives. The experience paved the way for my future work researching education, human rights, and development. Following that experience in Thailand, I won a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. researching the role that higher education plays in community development. From there, it has been a natural progression to work with a program like the Jamiya Project, where higher education is helping to solve the Syrian refugee crisis.

TBP:  In your opinion, what are the three biggest obstacles hindering students from obtaining a quality education in the Syrian refugee camps?

O’Keefe: One — not having enough time to study; in many cases, students must work to support their families. Two — lack of access to technology or an unreliable internet connection. Three — psycho-social factors; we often forget that many students have been completely uprooted from their regular lives, and in many cases, have been away from formal education for years. Re-adjusting to the structured environment of school can be difficult for anyone. But, being forced away from education, by no choice of your own, makes re-adjusting even more difficult.

TBP: The Jamiya Project is unique because it does more than just provide a platform for learning, it also provides a platform for teaching. Could you describe your organization’s motivation behind this approach?

O’Keefe: The best part of our model is that it offers displaced Syrian academics an opportunity to teach again. This alone provides some academic hope for the future of the country. You see, the Syrian academic network has not disappeared, but it has been completely disconnected. In fact, several thousand Syrian academics have been displaced. We believe unlocking their full potential can lead to higher education opportunities for even more Syrian refugees.

TBP:  Looking ahead, does the Jamiya Project plan to support students with career counseling or assist with job placement?

O’Keefe: Now that we’ve completed our pilot program, we are looking forward to building a program that will teach students how to apply their new knowledge and skills in the workplace, or to furthering their education. We have carefully selected our course subjects, like Applied IT, to match today’s job market. Moving forward, we plan to offer courses that will help students become viable candidates for local jobs.

TBP: Have students had problems accessing courses because of un-reliable electricity or in-accessible internet?

O’Keefe: We are grateful for our local NGO partners, The Norwegian Refugee Council, in Za-atari Refugee Camp and the Jesuit Refugee Services, in Amman. They have kindly provided study facilities where students can access computers during specified times. However, many of our students are employed during the week and accessing these facilities in the off hours can be very difficult. So yes, there have been some problems. The situation is not ideal for students who don’t have internet access in their homes. Finding a solution to this barrier is definitely at the top of our list for our new and improved model, scheduled to begin in June of 2017.

TBP: What is your main goal at the Jamiya Project?

O’Keefe: To deliver improved higher education opportunities to the 100,000-plus Syrians forced to live in the region, who otherwise would be denied an education. Ultimately, we’d like to create a replicable model for other crises areas. We are proud of the progress we’ve made in just over a year and are excited to push forward with our new and improved model.

It is estimated that more than 2,000 Syrian academics have fled or emigrated since the start of the conflict. With the continued success of Jamiya and other programs like it, displaced Syrians have the opportunity to make the best of their desperate circumstances and find a path back toward normalcy and prosperity.

Ashley Henyan

Photo: Flickr

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Ashley Henyan

Ashley lives in Los Angeles, CA. Her academic interests include English, Creative Writing and Screenwriting. Ashley has written her first work of fiction - Channel Surfing.

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