Even before the school comes into view, I hear the shrieks of delight of children playing. As I enter the gates I see parents chatting with one another while maintaining a watchful eye on their little ones. Teachers brainstorm about lesson plans for the next day, and talk excitedly about their upcoming soccer game on the weekend. Administrators sit outside their humid office looking frayed at the end of another day. These are the familiar sights and sounds of a school anywhere in the world. Yet this is no ordinary school, it is a learning centre for refugees. What’s more, it is not run by a multinational NGO in a dusty refugee camp, but rather a project initiated and operated by refugees themselves in the rolling green hills of West Java.
The Australian government’s recent closed border immigration policies have transformed Indonesia’s role in global refugee movement. Once largely used as a transit point on a clandestine journey to Australia, the country now hosts upwards of 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Indonesia is not willing to integrate them, and they face a long and uncertain wait to be resettled to another country by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). As a result of Australian immigration policy and global events such as the Syrian refugee crisis, these waits are increasing in length.
The Indonesian education system is in theory accessible to refugees, but this has only been realised in a handful of cases, even with the support and lobbying of advocacy groups. This leaves the vast majority of the estimated 1221 asylum seeker and refugee children residing in Indonesia without an education. Responding to this, refugees in West Java have taken the initiative to open a number of education hubs that cater for the specific needs of their community.
Self-starting education hubs
West Java hosts an estimated 2000 asylum seekers and refugees, including a large number of families with children. Those living in this area are predominantly ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan and Pakistan, fleeing conflict and a long history of persecution as a sectarian and ethnic minority. I spent almost a month living in refugee communities last year, conducting field research whilst based at Universitas Katolik Parahyangan in Bandung. I was drawn to the communities after hearing of the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre (CRLC), an education hub in the hills of West Java. It was only once I reached out and arranged a visit that I realised this centre was established and operated entirely by refugees.
Four men initiated the project in August 2014, which quickly attracted the attention of outside supporters and a benefactor group was founded in Australia to support the centre. I soon discovered that this was not the only refugee-led initiative in West Java, with the Refugee Learning Nest (RLN) opening at the beginning of 2015. This project was initiated by a Swiss NGO, Same Skies, which financed the establishment of the centre and provides ongoing training and capacity-building through site visits. While I was conducting my research in the area a third education hub, the Refugee Learning Centre (RLC), opened and has recently reached a partnership agreement with Same Skies.
Students attend a class at the Refugee Learning Centre - Credit: RLC
Cumulatively, the three centres now serve almost 200 primary to junior high school aged children. They follow a similar model, with a team of administrators (usually male) and teachers (usually female) sourced from within the local refugee community, and are funded by modest fees charged to parents that are supplemented by their benefactor groups. The curriculum resembles what you might see anywhere in the world, but with a distinct focus on English. Learning English is a priority amongst refugees, who are likely to be eventually resettled in an English-speaking country such as New Zealand, Canada or America. Not only will having good English enable faster integration with a new host community, it is also perceived to strengthen the chances of being accepted for resettlement.
The Refugee Learning Nest Team - Credit: Thomas Brown
Forming a community
As well as formal classes for children, there are a number of community activities operating through the learning centres. Some offer English and handicraft classes for women, and one even has a weekly Judo class taught by an enthusiastic Iranian woman. However, the most popular activity is soccer, which is adored by students and teachers alike. Each centre has a coach who facilitates training sessions as well as matches. There is a strong focus on gender diversity, and some females have had their first ever opportunity to play soccer in Indonesia. These activities act as community gatherings not only for the participants but also spectators, who gather to watch the soccer matches. The benefit of such activities on the mental wellbeing of those involved should not be underestimated. It’s evident from the excited cries, applause and whistles heard at a match that soccer provides a brief but welcome escape from their worries and anxieties.
Football is organised for teachers and students through the refugee schools - Credit: CRLC
‘Insider’ community development
This self-initiated or ‘insider’ community development is an emerging area of interest within refugee studies literature, and one that challenges the common perception of refugees as powerless victims resigned to a protracted wait in a difficult situation. It is, of course, entirely logical that any community would seek to empower themselves by honing their skills and experiences to improve their quality of life. What is impressive is that refugees are able to do this despite an unclear protection framework and unpredictable treatment by authorities, and with few resources. In the face of these uncertainties, refugees in West Java have banded together in an attempt to develop their community and return their lives to some form of normality.
Unlike in Malaysia, where there is a long precedent for self-organised refugee groups, and even UNHCR grants available to facilitate them, in Indonesia there had been no such groups prior to the establishment of the refugee learning centres in West Java.
In addition to providing an education to children who would otherwise go without, these initiatives also have a range of additional benefits to the community at large. The schools act as community hubs and a place for socialisation, and give structure and hope to people’s lives. Members of the community are often called upon to lend their skills, whether in cleaning, maintenance or construction activities, and community members are heavily involved in decision making within the schools through regular meetings. The school administrators and teachers are able to put their skills to use and make an impact on their community, whilst gaining experience that may useful in securing employment once resettled.
Part of the Refugee Learning Nest Administration Team - Credit: Thomas Brown
Besides the learning centres, another notable refugee-led initiative operates in West Java. The Refugee Women Support Group Indonesia is run by a young refugee woman, and has a focus on textiles and jewellery making. The group conducts workshops on women’s issues, including health and hygiene, reproductive health, sexual and gender-based violence and family planning. Most recently, they have started Bahasa Indonesia classes for women and children.
All these examples of refugee-led initiatives point to a strengthening of community feeling amongst those living in limbo in Indonesia. In addition to the formal refugee initiatives, a strong culture of mutual support has emerged. Many refugees who have a good standard of English travel to private houses to teach groups of adults or adolescents who are over the age serviced by the refugee learning centres. Often these students will in turn teach younger or less experienced individuals. Sporting activities are another well-established pastime amongst the community, and most men who typically have little to do otherwise, play soccer or ‘work out’ together every day. There are a number of indoor soccer facilities and gyms, which are used almost exclusively by refugees and asylum seekers, providing stimulus to the local economy.
Upon entering the lives of people who have endured and continue to face unimaginable hardship, I expected to be weighed down by feelings of anxiety and perhaps even despair. Instead I was inspired by their patience, strength and humour in the face of uncertainty and difficulty. Against the odds, they work to transform their experience and serve their community, in an attempt to carve a normal life out of a difficult situation.
Thomas Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a New Colombo Plan Scholar from the University of Adelaide based at Universitas Katolik Parahyangan in Bandung.