Refugee Learning Centre: A Glimmer of Hope in the Dark


Madiha Ali, Raheema Sana and Abdullah Sarwari, three refugees in Indonesia, have participated in the foundation of a school. The objective is to palliate the lack of educational structures for people in migration in this country.


Despite being a transit country for nearly 14,000 asylum seekers and refugees from Asia and the Middle East, Indonesia is not signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The implications of this is that Indonesia is not bound under international law to provide the necessities of life to its refugee population, including access to education.


Transit through Indonesia to Australia by people-smuggling boats was relatively quick in the early 2000s. However, after a crackdown on the practice, refugees are now forced to endure the lengthy UNHCR process, sometimes waiting up to several years before moving on to a safe third country.


After being registered as refugee with the UNHCR they are interviewed after a number of months and are then required to wait for another period of time before being resettled to a country like the U.S., Canada or New Zealand.


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


While awaiting news on their final destination, the asylum seekers are often not legally allowed to work, receive an education or purchase property making day to day life difficult. Non-governmental organizations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Church World Service (CWS) are doing their part to support some refugees with food and shelter, but there remains a larger portion of refugees who are responsible for their own survival. Refugees often confined within temporary homes with their children missing out on school and socializing with other kids, among the many other benefits afforded to those in more fortunate circumstances.


In 2014, a group of refugees in Cisarua, Indonesia decided to take matters into their own hands. Recognizing the challenges facing their community, they decided to use what little money they had to open the Refugee Learning Centre (RLC) just outside Jakarta. With financial support from a small group of Australians, the refugee community came together to pay for rent and teaching supplies, finally opening the centre in September 2015.


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


The RLC is a non-profit, non-political and non-religious learning centre which welcomes all refugee children regardless of race, religious or nationality. The entire RLC staff is made up of volunteers, teachers and administrators alike, who have proven to be committed to the Centre’s mission of educating refugees and their children.


People are given the opportunity to learn English, Math, Science, History and Geography four days a week. Just two years after its opening, the RLC now teaches 150 children in the morning, and 150 men and women in the evening.


I used to feel inferior to the boys because they were allowed to play all kinds of physical games and I wasn’tMuhaddisa Sarwari


Mohammed, a student at RLC, says the centre has made a big impact on his life: “I came to Indonesia about two years ago with my family and the first few months were very hard for me. I did not know anyone and I spent the whole day sleeping or wandering around aimlessly outside,” says Mohammed. “After joining Refugee Learning Center, my life was given a new purpose. I started to think about my future and what I want to do when I move to a third country. So I’m working very hard for my studies and my goals now.”


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


Mohammed hopes the education he receives while at the RLC will help with his goal to become a businessman. But if that does not go according to plan, he says he will purse professional football instead.


On top of providing an education for refugees, the RLC provides an opportunity for everyone to play sports and take part in recreational activities. This is particularly important for women as many express an interest in sports but often come from more conservative backgrounds that restrict them from participating.


“I used to feel inferior to the boys because they were allowed to play all kinds of physical games and I wasn’t,” says Muhaddisa Sarwari, 13. “And when I wanted to play I was ridiculed and made fun of.”


“Now I play futsal two days a week with my friends and teachers at RLC and it is amazing,” says Sarwari. “I forget all my worries and troubles when I am in the field. Even if it is for a few hours.”


Humaira, who has been a teacher at the RLC for the past two years, despite being of schooling age herself, believes that the work being done at the centre is not only benefiting the kids, but her as well.


Photo Abdullah Sarwari


“I have learned cooperation, team work, management and so many other useful skills,” says Humaira. “I believe if I give my time, if I put in effort, if I work hard on this centre, I will have a positive impact on my student. Not just me but everyone who does the same in the RLC affects the children in a positive way.”


The RLC started off with just an idea and is now a successfully operating learning centre with more that 300 students and 30 staff. During the short two-year period that it has been open, not only have they provided education to refugees, but have also provided them with hope and motivation.


Asylum seekers around the world always includes a large number of young and teenaged boys and girls who are in the prime years of their education. But often the laws and the difficulties of being a refugee restrict their access to this most basic of human right. Many refugees are left powerless and unable to receive adequate education while searching for safe harbor in a third country. The RLC and its volunteers have filled that gap for many, preparing them for their futures in a new home.


Edited by Joseph Coppolini 

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  • Abdullah Sarwari

    Abdullah Sarwari is an 18 year old Afghan refugee man. His family is originally from Afghanistan, although he was born in Pakistan and raised in Iran. Now based in Indonesia, Abdullah is a photographer at Human of Refuge as well as a social worker at the Refugee Learning Center -- a school established in Indonesia by the refugee community in September 2015. The school has 140 students (age 5-16) in the morning shift and over 80 adults in the afternoons English classes. Students come from 4 different countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

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