By Joseph Field, Head of English and Empowerment, British Council

14 December 2023 - 18:00

Three people standing together pose for the camera at a conference.
Joseph Field with Faridah Luanda and Noor Azizah. Their message is language learning is a vital, intrinsic, part of emergency education. ©

Joseph Field

Joseph Field talks about the new British Council pledge to refugees, and how he hopes it can be used to develop language education for displaced people around the world.

Faridah Luanda is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, she currently lives in Stockholm. On December 12, aged 24, after five years living in a settlement in Uganda, she addressed a vast hotel conference room at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF).

She spoke passionately about the need to prioritize education in emergencies, about how going to school was the safest thing for children to do, and how it was one of the only things that made them feel normal when everything else had gone wrong.

She was followed by Yasmine Sharif, the CEO of Education Cannot Wait, and Noor Azizah, a Rohingya refugee who escaped to Malaysia as a tiny child, surviving by selling things on the street and hiding in the jungle. Also on the panel were the leaders of the International Network for Education in Emergencies and of Humanitarian Education at Save the Children.

Last, and probably least was me. Head of English and Empowerment at the British Council. For once, though, speaking last was an advantage. Faridah and half the other speakers had already made my point for me. They’d all said, in different ways, how language learning is a vital, intrinsic, part of emergency education.

With more than 35 million refugees worldwide, the need to support them grows ever more pressing. Language skill is fundamental for access to resources, services, employment, and learning, as well as personal and community agency and social connection. Learning the languages of connection and access in second countries is among the life skills refugees use to build individual and community resilience through the periods of exile that follow crisis.

The GRF is the most important conversation about refugees, internationally. Every four years, in Geneva, ministers, government officials, and leaders of international organisations gather to discuss the most pressing issues and trends concerning refugees and try and take steps towards solutions. This year they were also joined by many young refugees, advocating like Faridah and Noor for different steps in the refugee journey.

The Education Campus on the day before the main GRF was an incredibly useful opportunity for me to emphasise the importance of language for refugees. A key function of the GRF is to generate action, and to gather plans and promises. Organisations all over the world ‘Pledge’ to the forum, declaring their intent to support refugees in one way or another. This year the British Council joined the pledges as well. You can read our pledge below. 

By raising the subject of language at the Education Campus event we hope to build support for our proposed network of partners. I wrote this at Starbucks on the edge of Geneva old town, where I bought the most expensive coffee of my life in exchange for an hour of wi-fi. Everything is expensive and not just here in Geneva. That is why pledges of the kind we’re making today are so important. It’s about global organisations like the British Council coming together to ensure that resources are effectively pooled and co-ordinated for maximum benefit. It's about outlining concrete commitments that can have direct lasting and measurable impacts on the refugee journeys of so many people around the world. 

People like Farida and Noor are proof of the importance of language learning for refugees. Neither of them spoke a word of English before they fled their homes and communities. Now they have used English to get university qualifications, work, set up charities, and speak on some of the biggest stages in the world. I will discuss with them how we can use our pledge with language teachers to maximise its impact on refugee children. How can we turn 50,000 supported teachers into five million benefitting students? 

It's a big question, but I’m hopeful they’ll have answers because I doubt they’re phased by anything. They’re refugees who learned English and used it to take on the world. 

The British Council Pledge

As the UK’s international cultural and educational organisation, the British Council’s purpose is to support peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. Responding to the educational needs of refugees is an increasing priority for us. In particular, language skills can be fundamental to refugees for access to resources, services, employment and education. They support personal agency and connections, and social cohesion and conflict reduction. 

In partnership with governments, international organisations, funders and local groups and in line with the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees, and the UK’s sponsorship of the “inclusive refugee education” multi-stakeholder pledge, the British Council supports displaced learners, teachers, teacher educators, school leaders, and civil societies organisations in new and protracted crises through: 

•       Supporting displaced teachers: addressing professional development and well-being needs; recognising and addressing trauma; and creating safe spaces and networks to improve skills and confidence, and provide support.

•       Supporting inclusive and high-quality education: promoting and using multilingual approaches to teaching and learning; and supporting English language provision where English is the language of the host community or language of instruction. 

Between now and 2026 we aim to support:

·       50,000 displaced teachers, teachers of refugees and school leaders through targeted provision in Bulgaria, Jordan, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Poland, Romania, Sudan, Uganda and Ukraine

·       20,000 teachers of refugees through our global ‘Language for Resilience’ virtual community of practice. 

We are committed to continuing to support teachers in protracted crises and responding to new crises when they emerge using innovative and context appropriate tools. We will work towards building a recognized concept of language as a tool for empowering refugees and displaced people and agree guidelines on the role of language in displacement. We will lead in advising on the role of English language skills in education in emergencies. We will provide opportunities for displaced people to share their stories and shape narratives about how they are portrayed in support of the UK’s wider ‘meaningful refugee participation’ pledge. 

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