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Through Partnerships, the MIT Refugee Action Hub Puts Talented but Displaced Students on the Path to Success

When MIT Solve issued a call for solutions to the Refugee Education Challenge in 2017, 68.5 million people worldwide had been forced to flee their homes to escape persecution, conflict, and poverty. Today, the world’s forcibly displaced population has grown to 79.5 million people, of whom 26 million are registered refugees. Displacement uproots individuals and families, disrupting lives and making access to the most basic rights difficult, if not impossible.

Access to quality education is the most pressing challenge for children and young people who are displaced. In 2019, only 3 percent of global refugees had access to higher education, as compared to 34 percent of the general population who are able to attend college. And the majority of displaced people now live in developing countries with already strained resources. While the Covid-19 pandemic has focused attention on how to provide quality education in times of crisis—and highlighting inequities in access, resource inequalities, and limitations in technology along the way—these are not new obstacles. For millions of refugee learners around the world, the pandemic has only heightened the difficulties they face and renewed calls to develop agile solutions for the world’s most vulnerable students.

Following MIT Solve’s call for innovative solutions in refugee education, the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) launched in May 2017. Faculty founder and Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Admir Masic’s own journey as a former Bosnian refugee helped inspire ReACT—as he notes, education became the “ticket out.” 

In the years since, the initiative has joined MIT Open Learning and developed into a network of organizations collaborating to address the complex problems of the ever-growing global displacement crisis. Today, ReACT’s mission is to design and deploy new learning opportunities for displaced populations around the world. With the early support of now-Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, ReACT currently partners internally with MITx, MIT Bootcamps, MISTI, and the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan-Arab Region, whose founder and chair Hala Fadel MBA ’01 is part of ReACT’s founding team. External partners are also key—including the Western Union Foundation (WUF), with which Solve first connected on a Solve at MIT panel that featured Masic, WUF President Elizabeth Roscoe, and Robert Hakiza of Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID).

ReACT offers two blended learning programs that create education-to-employment pathways for talented refugees and displaced populations worldwide: the certificate program in Computer and Data Science (CDS) and a MicroMasters track in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP). 

The yearlong CDS certificate program combines rigorous academic content, immersive bootcamps, and professional opportunities. Since the first call for applications in October 2017, the program has graduated two cohorts, and several CDS alumni have been accepted to Ph.D. programs at top universities around the world. Half of ReACT students have found permanent employment after graduation, with 75 percent of newly-employed graduates attributing their employment opportunities to ReACT.

Like the CDS program, ReACT’s DEDP MicroMasters uses an accessible blended model to enable refugee learners to advance their education and career opportunities. The program provides students with free access to online MicroMasters courses; in-person workshops in entrepreneurship, innovation, and professional development; and paid internships in the international development field. 

As the challenges of providing high-quality remote education change with our current circumstances, solutions must adapt accordingly. Drawing upon students’ own creativity and ingenuity—and their experiences of overcoming barriers to distance learning—ReACT is committed to broadening the reach and improving the inclusivity of our programs through online delivery of MIT academic content, immersive virtual bootcamps, and internship and networking opportunities. 

With WUF’s generous philanthropic support, MIT ReACT is now accepting applications for the 2020–2021 CDS cohort, which starts in September. We welcome applications from refugee and internally displaced persons from anywhere in the world, and a significant number of spots in the 50-person cohort will be reserved for women. Local citizens from low-income and underserved communities in Colombia, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Uganda are also encouraged to apply.

The resilience and courage of our refugee learners has always motivated and inspired MIT ReACT, even as we all adjust to the challenges of our ever-changing world. While the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the world’s most vulnerable communities—including refugees and displaced populations—we have also seen powerful reminders of how education can mitigate those impacts, giving us the strength, skills, and knowledge to move forward. 

We hope others will join us in creating opportunities for refugee and displaced learners to thrive. Our partnerships with the Western Union Foundation and others have launched dozens of students into new and impactful careers—will your organization be the next?

MIT Professor Admir Masic, Elizabeth Roscoe of Western Union Foundation, and Robert Hakiza of Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) discuss on stage during Solve at MIT 2019. Photo: Adam Schultz / MIT Solve.


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