“Providing access for all to education is my conviction, and it is the responsibility of those of us who hold any public office. We must guarantee the right to exercise this responsibility; to live it, to enjoy it and enjoy it fully. These are the rights of all people,” says Professor Alfonso Cassiani, speaking of what inspired him to advocate for the integration of refugees, displaced and returning young people and children in Cartagena’s schools (Colombia).

Alfonso Cassiani, born in San Basilio de Palenque, an Afro-Colombian community in Bolivar, Colombia, experienced the displacement of his parents, who suffered from racism and discrimination because of their African heritage. As a student, he faced similar challenges. His experience made him understand the difficulties of being both a refugee and a displaced young person in education.

With more than 30 years of teaching experience, he is currently the Rector of the Antonia Santos Ethno-educational and Inclusive Institution in Cartagena, and is an advocate for the inclusion of displaced persons in Colombia’s educational system. He oversees four school sites ranging from pre-school through to high school, with more than 2,300 students; 30% of whom are displaced.

Professor Cassiani stresses the importance of the inherent rights of all students, including children and young people. In 2019, with the arrival of refugees Venezuelan and Colombian migrants returning from Venezuela  he faced the challenge of guaranteeing their access to education for them all. He considers that this is not a favour from him, but a fundamental right of theirs.

To address this situation, the Pedagogy and Protection for Refugee and Migrant Children with a Mixed Approach (PPN) project was established in collaboration with UNHCR and Legal Option. This project seeks to create inclusive environments and to improve access, permanence and continuity of an education for refugees, migrants and returning children and adolescents. This project has succeeded in adapting teaching plans and promoting inclusion and interculturalism in schools, improving the quality of education and promoting school retention.

As an English teacher with 18 years’ experience in Colombia, Astrid emphasises that the project has helped to foster respect for interculturality and to overcome social and cultural barriers in the classroom, thus strengthening interpersonal relationships amongst students.

Solutions for access to education and inclusion

One of the project’s beneficiaries is the Tierra Bomba Educational Institution in Cartagena, an island on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, with more than 1,000 students. These are mostly Afro-Colombians, returnees and internally displaced persons, who are victims of the armed conflict.

Astrid, who was displaced as a child, serves more than 300 students in this school and highlights the project’s transformative impact on the education system by promoting greater inclusion of displaced students.

Teachers have used the “Pedagogical Route” – a guide provided by UNHCR – to identify the needs of schools with more refugee, migrant and returning students. They have then developed work plans that include activities to improve co-existence, and have adopted innovative academic programmes which have influenced educational policies, the empowerment of refugees and displaced children as well as community activities.

These activities, such as theatre performances, tree planting, beach clean-ups and play activities, have fostered interaction between students and have significantly reduced xenophobia and discrimination in the classroom, thus creating a more harmonious teaching environment and promoting the pedagogical development of teachers.

Developing the potential of displaced students

Mariangelis, an eighth grader from Caracas, Venezuela, expressed her desire to study human rights and to advocate for equal treatment of refugees and migrants in other countries. She has lived in Colombia for the past four years, three of them in Tierra Bomba, where she has experienced the kindness of the community.

The PPN project, from 2019 until July 2023, has had a positive impact on more than 11,000 members of educational communities in Colombia. It has worked within nine departments, serving more than 13,000 students, 8,000 families and more than 300 educational institutions. This is all in addition to training more than 8,000 people in educational situations and collaborating with more than 500 local officials from the Secretariats of Education.

[translated from Spanish]

20th October 2023

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