Millions of refugees live in limbo. Here's one initiative offering hope and purpose.
Imagine being stuck in a country where you're not allowed to work, go to school, or become a citizen.
You're not being persecuted in this country, and you're relatively safe. But you didn't plan to end up here. It was supposed to be a temporary stop on your way to a country that accepts refugees in an official capacity — but there are far more refugees like you than those countries are willing to take.
So now you're stuck in a nation that's not a part of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The president has agreed not to send you back to the danger you fled in your own country, but you have no other official rights or protections. And you have no way to make a life for yourself here.
What do you do when you have no real options?
Around 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers are stuck in limbo in Indonesia, with little to no hope of being resettled. Photo via Roshan Learning Center.
This is the reality thousands of refugees face in Indonesia, where the inability to earn a living means relying on charity or living on the street.
Heather Biggar Tomlinson and Ashley Berryhill recognized a unique opportunity to work with their refugee friends in Jakarta and help empower a community.
Tomlinson and Berryhill, friends living in Jakarta, saw the growing crisis in 2014. They started asking their friends who are refugees and asylum-seekers how they could work together to mitigate it. They envisioned "a community-led initiative to give adults a meaningful goal and children an opportunity to maintain educational attainment during long days of waiting."
More than simply a school for refugees, they wanted to build a volunteer-based educational initiative with refugees. It wasn't a charity they envisioned but rather a grassroots, community-based project that would provide skills, hope, and purpose to a community with few opportunities.
And from that vision, Roshan Learning Center was born.
Roshan means "light" or "bright" in Farsi — a nod to the Afghan and Iranian people who make up most of the refugee community in Jakarta.
Photo via Roshan Learning Center.
Housed in an old art studio building, Roshan provides education opportunities for refugee youth ages 3 to 18 as well as adults. The center outgrew its first location within a year and has blossomed from a handful of young students to 150 learners of all ages. Most come from Afghanistan and Iran, but they also serve students from Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries. Kids and youth learn English and Bahasa — the national language of Indonesia — math, science, and art. Adults can learn computer and vocational skills as well.
But the mission of Roshan goes beyond offering basic education. Most of the teachers and administrators at Roshan are refugees themselves. For people with limited options, having a community with purpose is a vital channel for tapping their own potential. And a focus on character and service helps keep people's spirits lifted.
The Roshan website sums up the values of its community with an acronym:
"To open DOORS in the future, we aim to:
Do good for others (to remind ourselves that we are not victims)
Open our minds (to new ideas and people)
Own responsibility (for our lives, learning, environment, and mistakes)
Reach for the stars (to stay hopeful and set high but achievable expectations)
Support our friends (to build community, trust, and trustworthiness)."
People in challenging circumstances thrive when they have an opportunity to uplift themselves and contribute to their community. Roshan has built such an opportunity with the community itself. And it's supported entirely through private donations and volunteer efforts, always centering and empowering the people it serves. It's a beautiful thing.
Photo via Roshan Learning Center.
Community-driven grassroots efforts like this can make a world of difference.
Brandon Baughn, program director at Roshan, tells me that since countries like Australia and the United States have drastically reduced the number of refugees they're taking, there's little hope of Roshan students going to a third country.
"As of late 2017, UNHCR is telling refugees they shouldn't expect to ever be resettled as a refugee through those traditional means," says Baughn. "They're telling refugees that they should start exploring other options. But there really are no other options they can give them — the one exception being sponsorship through Canada. The problem is that's only going to meet the needs for a pretty limited number."
Initiatives like Roshan offer refugees a purpose in the present as well as preparation for an uncertain future. While governments deliberate over who will and won't get help, it's ordinary people doing extraordinary things who offer a bright spot in the darkness.