From Campus to Camp and Back

Note from the field from a humanitarian humanities practitioner

“Since I have started learning global history, I listen to the news differently. Now, when I listen to Aljazeera I understand much more,” says Joseph Doggale and smiles as we are standing outside of the classroom. It is one of those gratifying moments when, as a lecturer, you feel you have made a difference in your students’ lives. I smile back at him and am satisfied knowing that there is true value in teaching humanities in emergency situations, despite the many challenges that come with the endeavor.

This is not an ordinary classroom and Joseph is not an ordinary student. Joseph is a refugee from South Sudan residing in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. In the fall of 2016, he enrolled in the Global History Lab, a massive open online course (MOOC) offered by Princeton University on edX. For several years, Professor Jeremy Adelman has been teaching the history of the world 1300 to the present to Princeton students and thousands of learners worldwide. As the teaching assistant for Kenya, I rolled out the course to 19 refugees of eight different nationalities in Kakuma camp with logistical support from InZone. Our Kakuma classroom was truly multilingual and multicultural, encompassing students from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Congo DRC, and Uganda. That afternoon, when Joseph told me how reflecting upon more than 700 years of history around the globe together with students not only from different African countries but all over the world had changed the way he perceived the world around him, he was back for more. This time, he was taking part in an intensive life history workshop which I offered in September 2017 as a pilot to a new project.

1st cohort of Global History Lab students in Kakuma refugee camp, September 2016. Source: InZone/Global History Lab

Some students were adamant that they did not want to be reduced to consumers of history but were keen to contribute to the production of history themselves

The idea for the History Dialogue Project was born after speaking with Joseph and other students about the importance of exploring history as it touched on the lives of the students in such multilingual, multiethnic, multinational and transient yet permanent places like Kakuma refugee camp. Some students were adamant that they did not want to be reduced to consumers of history but were keen to contribute to the production of history themselves. In the words of student Gera Tefera, resident of Kakuma refugee camp:

History should be the privilege of all of us so as to understand, dignify and uplift humanity. Both past and future are the concerns of all people. History is not made by few historians, can’t also be created by only a few historians, it is a co-creation process. Monopolizing the creation of historical narratives is one way of monopolizing power.

Gera Tefera, history student in Kakuma refugee camp

We can effectively empower students for instance by providing them with the training and knowledge to support them to undertake research situated in their lives and communities. By using their location advantage and their migration experience and understanding of life in the camp, learners produce compelling historic narratives that are of interest to both their communities and audiences beyond. Gera, for instance, has meanwhile applied to the National Geographic Society for a grant to be able to tell the history of Kakuma camp from the perspective of long-term residents.

Only 1 % of all refugees have access to higher education – compared to 36 % of all learners worldwide

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to education. (…) higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” The Sustainable Development Goals echo the sentiment in Goal 4 which reads: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” These are noble but currently illusory goals for refugees. Only about 1% of all refugees are as lucky as Joseph and his Kakuma classmates, according to UNHCR estimates. The UNHCR’s stated goal is to increase this number to 15 percent by 2030. Much needs to change. Online courses with a blended learning component, combining online with offline sessions, have much to offer to refugee learners. Many of those living in refugee camps or otherwise barred from studying at institutions in their host countries have little access, especially to courses in the humanities. Yet, creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, and empathy are crucial qualities a humanities education can foster. At Geneva university a summer school regularly brings together practitioners working in higher education in emergencies and crises. Initiatives such as Historians Without Borders have made it their mission to bring together political and academic actors to discuss history across conflict zones. The Global History Lab at Princeton University seeks to bring both initiatives together to teach history in humanitarian emergencies.

The History Dialogue Project: history made in the camp

The new pilot project situated at Princeton’s Global History Lab that emerged out of the engagement with learners in Kakuma and beyond is called the History Dialogue Project. Seven of Joseph’s fellow students are currently enrolled in this small private online course (SPOC). They are learning how to conduct and present their own history research projects together with five refugee students from the MENA region based at Kiron and 11 refugee and host country students based at Kepler in Rwanda. The classroom brings together refugee learners in camps and urban settings with host country students; we have 23 students from nine countries, presently residing in six different countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Online and offline learning are both important in a blended learning approach such as the one adopted by the courses at Princeton University’s Global History Lab. Source: InZone/Global History Lab

I designed this nine-month online course to introduce students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines to a toolbox of approaches to research, writing, and presenting. The toolbox then allows students to frame, conduct, and present their own history research projects under the guidance of the teaching staff. The course is divided into five segments ranging from research methodology and ethics to storytelling and supervised research, interpretation, and production of final papers and presentations. I am currently teaching the online sessions and am liaising with the international partner institutions and guest lecturers involved. Presently Princeton University, Kepler, Kiron, and the UNHCR in Kakuma are contributing learners and infrastructure to make the History Dialogue Project possible. Students get intensive individual supervision through a buddy system with other learners as well as through the involvement of three Princeton University teaching assistants who regularly interact with their assigned students one-on-one and through regional WhatsApp groups and make sure they do not fall behind due to technical or content challenges.

Online learning: Collaborative education?

The History Dialogue Project allows for bringing together different learners across countries, cultures, language barriers, but also across disciplinary boundaries and socio-economic backgrounds. They learn together and support each other in conducting individual research projects. This transnational, digital setup helps students not only to see through the eyes of their classmates from different contexts but also to problem solve together. Student Placide Mwizerwa from Rwanda states:

It is very important to me [to be in a classroom with students from many nationalities] since we are living in a globalized life where we have to work or live with many people from around the globe. So, the first advantage is that I got to know how they speak, they think and the way of living in their countries. Secondly, I got to have their contact for chatting even after the classroom activities and this can be great opportunities for sharing what can be done in either country

Placide Mwizerwa, history student in Kakuma refugee camp

We are currently in the third phase of the course, and students are conducting their research on diverse topics, among them: the history of the Burundian drum 1850-present; the history of fashion in Rwanda; the impact of migration on Twa culture in Burundi and Rwanda 1959-2019; thirty years of Kakuma camp in Kenya; the history of the Darfurian community in Kakuma camp; the history of the boda boda transportation system in Kakuma refugee camp; the history of female leadership in Juba, South Sudan; and East African migration to Yemen.

History Dialogue Project learners in Kakuma camp are engaging in an oral history interview exercise during the in situ workshop. Source: History Dialogue Project

Five months in, we have only lost one student, who won a scholarship to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Lisbon University. The other students are going strong, despite the many challenges they continue to face. Those include technical challenges like instable internet connections and restrictions on internet use. They include language and content challenges like taking a course in English which to some has never been their language of instruction and learning to think like an oral historian which, for someone coming in with a background in computer science or business, requires rethinking her definition of research. And lastly, they are of personal nature. Students, some of whom continue to live in instable and dangerous surroundings, have to create time for independent study and research among the many challenges of creating a life for themselves and their families. Together we have to weigh what stories can and cannot be told safely. Moreover, they are committing to an unusually long course in what can be erratic and instable lives, albeit as part of a group of learners that sets out together to expand their horizons through historic research.

Online class session still of the History Dialogue Project. Source: History Dialogue Project

It is too early to say what conversations the research of these students will spark both within the Global History Lab, where their research will be available as case studies to future learners, and within their communities. It is safe to say that the research has already engendered lively debates among the research buddies, among students and their TAs, as well as in the classroom. As we are all growing together as an online community, teaching and writing history across borders, we are certain of one thing: humanitarian humanities are met by a strong commitment from the refugee learners who demonstrate every day the importance of democratic access to the creation of histories from the global South.

About the author

Dr. Marcia C. Schenck is currently a visiting research fellow at Princeton University’s history department and its Global History Lab. She has accepted a position as Professor for Global History at the University of Potsdam, starting on January 1st, 2020. Presently, she is researching the history of the Organization of African Unity’s refugee convention of 1969. Her research interests include the history of migration and processes of refuge seeking, labor history, education history, oral and life history, African and global history and the history of international organizations.


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