A man stands in front of a whiteboard giving a presentation, recorded by a smartphone on a tripod. The whiteboard includes a drawing and text about “Product and market fit.”
Majd Khodari, a student of the first Amala Global Secondary Diploma cohort in Amman, Jordan, presents his ScholaScope project, a platform to connect students and scholarships which later won the Jordan Start-up of the Year Award

Majd Khodari was always passionate about school, but his experience since fleeing conflict in his native Syria shows how hard it is for refugees to pursue education and fulfil their ambitions.

He escaped war in his home country and moved to Lebanon, and then Jordan, where he worked from the age of 15 to support his family. But he could not access his old Syrian school records, and officials in Amman insisted he would have to resit exams over multiple years to attain the younger childhood grades he had already achieved.

“I kept on learning: it was my passion,” he says. But he switched from classroom education to teaching himself English and digital marketing via YouTube. Then, he came across Amala: an innovative programme designed for, and in consultation with, refugees, which has helped propel him towards university study in Canada.

The project — currently with operations in the Jordanian capital and in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya — aims to offer participants ways to complete their secondary schooling and continue with further study.

It highlights the significant unmet need to support the millions of young people displaced by conflict around the world — most of whom struggle to continue with schooling. Just a small fraction completes secondary school, and still fewer enter tertiary education or achieve their full potential.

Polly Akhurst, along with her co-founder Mia Eskelund Pedersen, launched Amala in 2017 after trying to raise funds for a scholarship for a Syrian refugee.

“We soon realised that 100 people would apply for the one scholarship, and we thought ‘what happens to the other 99?’” Akhurst says.

Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya
Facilitator Manahil leads a class on self-awareness in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya © Amala
A community gathering inside a rustic room with corrugated metal and wood walls, featuring a man teaching a diverse group of seated young adults

This sparked “a crazy idea”: to create a new secondary education programme specifically for refugees. Their experience of doing so shows how hard it is — or can be — for young displaced people to receive an education. While many countries try to integrate refugee children into their school systems, this is often confounded by limited resources, differences in curriculums and language, and the precarious nature of migrants’ own lives.

A number of external organisations — ranging from UN agencies to non-profit groups and even public broadcasters through shows such as Sesame Street — provide additional support with learning. But Akhurst says that most prioritise more basic skills and focus on younger children, rather than those in the final years of secondary school. Others offer shorter courses around specific skills, such as coding.

By contrast, Amala developed a more comprehensive, free course, called “Changemaker”, focused on practical life skills, and covering topics such as social entrepreneurship, peace-building, ethical leadership, narratives, and “maths for change”.

“I’m working on a project on empowerment and human justice,” says Marriana Abwe, 27, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo as a child for Kenya and hopes, one day, to study law in the UK and return to her own country to apply those skills. “I talk with girls and women to understand their difficulties,” she says.

Graduation at Kakuma Camp, Kenya
Members of the first cohort of the Amala Global Secondary Diploma in Kakuma Camp, Kenya celebrate their graduation © Amala

Akhurst and her colleagues at Amala saw that, while the Changemaker course was helping, students without a formal high school diploma struggled to progress into jobs or further education. So she has been at the front of a broader movement — embraced by a group of more traditional schools, such as Ecolint in Geneva — to shift away from old exam-based diplomas towards more personalised records, linked to students’ achievements.

Amala hosted a series of “hackathons” with young people to identify the most useful content and formats. And, earlier this year, it won recognition by two international accreditation agencies — the Council of International Schools and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges — for the Amala Global Secondary Diploma. This has given it credibility with employers and universities.

Students typically take the diploma course over 15 months, spending about 20 hours a week completing the Changemaker modules, as well as a personal project, such as research or an internship, and a “personalised pathway”, detailing how they aim to progress in studies or employment.

One remaining challenge is how to scale up the approach, given limited internet access and a preference for face-to-face teaching. Amala is already seeking extra funding to sustain itself and expand, as it seeks to extend the diploma to girls in Afghanistan and to refugees from Gaza.

So far, nearly 3,800 students have taken the Changemaker course and nearly 400 its diploma, with a promising uptick in the graduates’ subsequent employment and further study. A recent evaluation estimated the graduates were three times more likely to progress in jobs, further education or entrepreneurship than their peers.

Yet the transition is still not easy. Khodari became one of the best ambassadors for Amala, winning a place to study psychology and philosophy at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. But he was disappointed with the quality of his initial courses there, and his immigration status meant he was unable to work to supplement his studies and support himself.

Khodari is now close to obtaining a different status that will allow him to pay tuition fees at lower domestic rates, which means he can finally seek to apply to another university. “Any refugee interested in education will always land on their feet,” he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article