Post-Secondary Education in and Beyond Forced Migration Contexts

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

The Community Mobilization In Crisis Project

By Nadia Abu-Zahra, Diana El Richani, and Emily Regan Wills, University of Ottawa

The Community Mobilization in Crisis (CMIC) project co-creates open education resources with and for communities in crisis, particularly refugee and host communities. The resources, co-created and/or used in Turtle Island (Canada/US), Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Brazil, and Mexico,are openly available at This brief note details our context, approach, and open educational resources (interview videos, transcripts, reading texts, e-portfolio questions, activity sheets, blogs, and more), and our finding that mobilising and sharing our experiences as community mobilisers or mobilisers-in-training is in itself educational and empowering.


"[W]hile calls for radical changes to the ways in which we think about and organize and participate in programs […] are relatively widespread […] educators familiar with an expanding literature on feminist pedagogy are no doubt aware of the difficulties such a transformation of the structures of classroom social relations entails" (Dippo et al. 1991, 82).

This statement from nearly two decades ago is from among the world’s leading actors in transforming post-secondary education, through an innovative programme named ‘Borderless Higher Education for Refugees’ (BHER). When we first met Wenona Giles, Don Dippo, Aida Orgocka, Emily Antze (and by teleconference, Marangu Njogu and Josephine Gitome) at York University a few years ago – and what seems a long time ago – we were not only struck by the near-uniqueness of the BHER programme at the time, but also by how the programme facilitated changes in York University that benefitted not only Somali refugees in Kenya, but also all students and professors involved in York University programmes or courses affected by BHER. In other words, the traditional way of thinking of programmes extended to refugees is that they are for refugees; but these programmes can also be part of larger efforts to transform power structures in post-secondary education, to the benefit of all those engaged within them.

The ‘radical changes’ and ‘transformation of the structures’, to which Dippo and his co-authors refer, are indeed, as they say, difficult, but when they happen, even in tiny proportions, they are also truly rewarding. In this article, we explain how we – as three individuals from our home institution, the University of Ottawa – have been privileged to work among a large international team of mostly volunteers – students, staff and faculty, community members and (other) mobilisers – to learn from the BHER programme, and to build a similar but different multi-institutional programme, ‘Community Mobilization in Crisis’.

As the programme took shape, we were reminded that not only refugees are excluded from post-secondary education; more powerfully, we were reminded of our own institution’s role in the repression of First Nations, as it is not only located on unceded (i.e. illegally taken) land from the Algonquin nation but was also founded by and for decades served as a training institution for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, whose priests were responsible for rampant sexual abuse of Indigenous children (Page and Pindera 2018). This, among other things, caused us to question our ability to offer programmes and courses purportedly for ‘development’ and similar ‘helping’ professions. It also caused us to examine how we could slowly build a movement ‘starting in our own backyard’. Beyond being guided by principles of non-discrimination, truth, self-determination, and justice, we also wanted to respectfully appreciate and adopt wise Indigenous practices such as relational accountability (Wilson 2012) and circle learning – which we discuss in more detail below. We are only at the beginning of a path toward ‘radical changes’ and ‘transformation of the structures’; there is a very long way to go. Here we tell the story of this short beginning, starting with the kernel of an idea for a project: forced migration and post-secondary education.

Forced Migration and Post-Secondary Education

Being forced from one’s home significantly reduces the chances of being able to pursue post-secondary studies. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 34% of youth worldwide attend university whereas only 1% of refugee youth do, indicating that primary and secondary enrollment rates, recognition of prior learning and the difficulty in providing paperwork, all within a context of crisis, create further barriers in accessing higher education

for refugees (UNHCR 2017).

To address this challenge, initiatives have arisen of five different sorts (according to Gladwell et al. 2016a): (1) those with a physical presence among the affected population; (2) host-community scholarships; (3) international scholarships; (4) online learning platforms; and (5) information sharing portals.

Source: Gladwell et al 2016: 2

Each of these types of initiatives has advantages and disadvantages. Scholarships, for instance, have a large impact for a small number of individuals. Information sharing portals serve a larger population but offer referrals rather than educational services (see Refugee Support Network 2019; European Resettlement Network 2019; Gladwell et al 2016: 5; MOOCs4inclusion 2019). Online learning platforms are more accessible, but are rarely tailored logistically or pedagogically for forced migration contexts; they also can entail learner/user costs, have varying levels of involvement of qualified specialists, and rarely have face-to-face contact (Gladwell et al 2016: 43).

Other programmes, such as those in the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium (UNHCR 2019), are specifically designed to include forced migration contexts, either uniquely or among other contexts. These programmes incorporate face-to-face learning, even while creating or co-creating digital—and sometimes open—educational resources (InZone 2019; Mosaik 2019; Gladwell et al 2016: 15). The Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) project, for instance, is a joint initiative between universities and foundations in Kenya and Canada and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in education and geography to refugee teachers and others in Dadaab and Kakuma camps in Kenya.

Case Study: The Community Mobilization in Crisis Project

In 2013, inspired by the BHER project, the University of Ottawa began what would become the Community Mobilization in Crisis (CMIC) project. Influenced by efforts such as the #shiftthepower campaign, as well as our experiences in working with communities and civil society in West Asia, Turtle Island[1], and elsewhere, we chose not to use existing curriculum and instead to transnationally co-create materials following the Indigenous principles of non-hierarchical, ‘circle’ learning. This follows from our normative commitment to undoing colonial epistemologies and actions, given our position as researchers and teachers working on unceded Algonquin territory in Turtle Island, and with roots in Lebanon, Palestine, and Ireland via Lenni Lenape and Mohawk territory.

Originally conceived to serve refugees in a camp in Jordan, the launch location shifted to Beirut, in recognition of Lebanon’s major refugee-hosting role, where today every third person is a refugee (Human Rights Watch 2019: 353, 355), and for every refugee is another person in an equally challenging socioeconomic situation (World Bank 2019). We reached out to numerous organisations across Turtle Island (Canada/US) and West Asia and were welcomed by the American University of Beirut (AUB), which was already responding quickly to the growing numbers of people forced from their homes in Syria and elsewhere. Together, the AUB’s Faculty of Health Sciences’ team (led by Professor Sawsan Abdulrahim) and the University of Ottawa team (which, over a six year period and for varying other periods, included four professors, over 60 local and international students, and six employees) began the process of co-creating educational materials with community mobilisers in Turtle Island, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, and Mexico. They developed ‘open educational materials’, i.e. digital and in-person materials such as interview videos, transcripts, reading texts, e-portfolio questions, which are openly accessible to all.

Community Mobilization: Collective Initiatives, Common Struggles

We began to frame our contribution as making space for learners who wanted to do something that was not available in local or international universities, and who wanted to remain involved in their communities while still building their skills and credentials. Our approach utilises different aspects of the five modalities of education—physical presence at a local institution of higher education, a digital platform to support blended learning, and tuition-free education rather than granting scholarships to existing programmes. While community mobilisation was a needed skill identified by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), United Nations agencies such as the UNHCR, UNFPA, UNDP, and other community workers with whom we spoke, that was not our only reason for choosing it; we also wanted to break from top-down approaches to implementing development and humanitarian projects, and work towards the collaborative empowerment of communities in crisis.

Community mobilisation is a set of practices that entail individuals joining together as collectives, based on shared concerns (societal issues or injustices), strengths, or interests, to initiate and sustain local engagement and coordinated action (Rubin and Rubin 2001; Shragge 2013; Ganz 2016). Longstanding ‘command and control’ style practices in times of crisis have been criticised for their impracticality, inefficacy, temporariness, and wastefulness, as well as for maintaining or exacerbating unjust social hierarchies and power structures (Lentfer and Cothran 2017; Imperiale and Vanclay 2019). By contrast, communal ownership of initiatives gives more power to community members, who necessarily have insights and knowledge that are less visible to outsiders and inverts the hierarchical top-down implementation of development or humanitarian projects. Community leadership also provides opportunities to explore the institutionalised nature of crises through a stronger connection to people’s experiences over lifetimes and generations, making visible the need for social change on the systematic level rather than the individual. Community mobilisation is a powerful tool in social change-making, because ‘the vulnerable are less vulnerable when they stand together against common struggles’ (Yasmine and Moughalian 2016).

Community-based and participatory approaches are ‘on trend’ in many forms of humanitarian and development assistance. However, many of these simply place the burden of responsibility on the communities affected by crisis and war without truly turning over power, control, and resources to them. Adding ‘community consultations’ or ‘participatory processes’ to standard development projects does little to shift the balance of power away from international donors, project-driven aid delivery mechanisms, and the persistent, hierarchical NGO-isation of the process of making social change (Roy 2016: 331-335). However, putting the decision-making power and resources to make change into the hands of people facing challenges and communities affected by crisis has the potential to transform how those power structures work. We therefore co-create educational resources with community-based initiatives that showcase how community members are able to identify problems and work towards solving them without the need to replicate the donor-based model of NGOs. When refugees and host community members work with our materials to support them in developing their own projects, they do so through learning that individuals can create change in their own communities, that there are other ways to organise initiatives rather than through hierarchical decision-making power. Those students, who we call mobilisers-in-training, go on to design initiatives that rely on the community and its resources in order to address issues that they choose.

Co-Creating Open Educational Resources

The bulk of our materials are co-created with community mobilisers, including the team members at the two universities (i.e. many of whom had experience in community mobilisation, despite it not necessarily being their ‘academic’ field). All those who learn from the resources can in turn speak back to them and join, through an iterative process, in their co-creation. Users of the resources thus become contributors to the resources, and the cycle continues. This is happening transnationally, with partners in Turtle Island, Lebanon, Palestine, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Brazil, and elsewhere. We also built upon frameworks used in what is termed ‘anti-oppressive’ education, much of which is all-too-frequently omitted from university curricula and instead is best known in ‘popular’ education. The three figures below, for instance, are part of asset-based community development and are often used in many forms of crisis, including among survivors of violence against women.

Figure 1: This image demonstrates how to build personal and collective strength in times of crisis. It is also used to identify and later assemble resources to strengthen whatever initiative emerges, whether it be advocacy, fulfilling a need, mutual support, communication, or another form of collective engagement or action.

Figure 2: This image is used to identify common struggles and shared concerns, as well as pooled talents and collective interests.

Figure 3: The list on the left is just a sample; users create their own lists of factors they consider to be ‘self-care’ and weigh their relative (and varying) importance in their lives. This ‘self-check-in’ tool is later used in coping and communicating through subsequent challenges.

The open educational materials have been used in various contexts, for example in pilots with displaced people, refugees, and host community members in the Bekaa region of Lebanon and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with university students at the University of Brasilia and the University of Ottawa, and with NGO workers in Beirut, New York City, and Toronto. Although our learning objectives are always different, contextualised, and co-developed, certain threads remain in common: we strive to support all mobilisers-in-training in designing community-based initiatives and solutions through important tasks such as understanding one’s own community and role within it, conducting research in order to identify problems, designing an action plan that involves community leadership and engagement, and identifying local resources to sustain these initiatives. Our focus when facilitating these programmes is on how community members themselves can create and implement projects relevant to their day-to-day lives and context, rather than replicating NGO-style work often limited to giving awareness sessions and providing services.

In some cases, it is a struggle for participants to reorient themselves towards the community-based approach for which we advocate. For instance, in the Lebanon pilot, the mobilisers talked about the problems affecting their communities, including access to education, health, employment, and others. However, the solutions proposed placed them outside of their community, working as service providers rather than members affected themselves by the problems. During the in-person sessions meant to work on project design, there was a constant back and forth critically engaging the mobilisers to address sustainability, community involvement, and decision-making. Together, we identified the need to expand the curriculum to tackle issues on how to shift away from practices that replicate NGO work when talking about community-based initiatives, how to design and implement without the necessary need for funding, and how to define community mobilisation in terms of ownership and agency.

As we have used these materials and supported others in using them elsewhere, we have found—in our own institutions and beyond—that all the mobilisers-in-training as well as our teams face the same challenges to education and barriers to mobilising: the dominance of formalised, white-saviour, top-down directed models of social change, and a systematic bias towards telling people in crisis what they need, rather than letting them control the process. The stories mobilisers share benefit us all, and the questions they wrestle with echo each other. This kind of cross-context work mirrors a direction being taken in the field of forced migration and post-secondary education: not creating programmes or materials that are only ‘for refugees’ but instead are for everyone, enriched by all, including but not limited to people forced from their homes. The hope is that someday, through ‘radical changes’ and ‘transformation of the structures’ that include but go far beyond the small programme of CMIC, the one per cent will be no longer, and in its place will be open opportunities for all, to the benefit of all.

Diana El Richani is a Lebanese Anthropologist based in Ottawa and is currently the Project Manager of the Community Mobilization in Crisis project. She holds a BA in Sociology and Anthropology, with a double major in Philosophy, from the American University of Beirut. Most recently, she holds an MA in Anthropology from the University of Ottawa. Her MA thesis focused on the political imaginaries of the alternative and the ways through which they navigated the complex political terrain during the Beirut municipality elections in 2016. Her interests include social movements and community mobilizations in the Middle East, relationships to the state and its apparatuses, and extends to questions on postwar architectures, transitional justice, and colonial power.

Emily Regan Wills co-facilitates the Community Mobilization in Crisis project, and is Associate Professor of Comparative and American Politics at the University of Ottawa. Her work focuses around transnational linkages and connections between the Arab world, its diasporas, and North America, as well as everyday politics, social movements, and transnationalism more broadly. She is author of Arab New York: Words, Politics, and Identities in Everyday Life (2019), from New York University Press. She was born and raised in the United States (in territory taken from the Lenni Lenape and Mohawk nations), educated at Yale University and the New School for Social Research, formed in feminist, queer, and anti-war social movements, and is a mother of two.

Nadia Abu-Zahra co-facilitates the Community Mobilization in Crisis project, and currently holds the Joint Chair in Women’s Studies at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa. She is an Associate Professor in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, and a member of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre. She is co-author, with Adah Kay, of Unfree in Palestine. She was born and raised in Canada (in territory taken from First Nations, including the Huron-Wendat, that was covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes).


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[1]The colonial imposition of labels – like ‘North America’ and ‘Middle East’ – preserves the violent hegemony of colonial powers. As such, we try to utilise the language that the Indigenous nations of Turtle Island use. ‘West Asia’ is not an Indigenous term; we use it to combine regions known as ‘al-Ḥijāz’, ‘al-Shām’, and ‘al-Yaman’, roughly translating to ‘the separator’ (between the Red Sea and an eastern region of Najd), land on ‘the left’ and land on ‘the right’ (if located in al-Ḥijāz and facing east), as well as other neighbouring regions. Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, for instance, are part of the lands of the north, Bilād al-Shām. Other terms used are al-Mashriq and al-Maghrib (i.e. east and west), referring to areas east and west of al-Ḥijāz.