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A Method of Connection: Research and Education for Refugees

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Paul O'Keeffe Head Shot_revised

Paul O’Keeffe

By Krystin Gollihue

There are many difficulties that researchers and scholars today face, one of which is the growing idea that research, and knowledge itself, should be a commodity rather than a public good. This idea trickles down not only to early-career academics fighting to stay afloat within mainstream academia, but it also affects students and the education they receive.

New Research Voices Logo_revisedNew Research Voices (NRV) aims to counter this commercialization of research and to bring knowledge back into the hands of the public by creating an online community for scholars to engage with one another’s work. Paul O’Keeffe and Zsuzsanna Pasztor initially sought to focus on international academics who had been forced to migrate from their home countries and were unable to practice, publish, or teach. At the time, the Syrian refugee crisis was at the forefront of their own experiences as PhD candidates in Rome. They identified the digital as a possible medium by which the initiative could take off and yet not be tied to any brick-and-mortar institution that would preclude refugee scholars from being involved. For the first issue, Researchers in Exile, NRV received organizational assistance from the Scholars at Risk Network, an academic migrant organization that wanted to support the new platform. The second issue focused on Syrian academics who were refugees and exiles, another collaborative effort with the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, who provided advice and connections.

While NRV has focused mostly on the needs of academics, a new project underway called Jamiya Project addresses the needs of the students that these scholars would have taught if they had not been exiled. Jamiya Project is partnering with the University of Gothenburg and various Syrian academics “to create blended online accredited undergraduate courses” for young Syrian refugees. The Jamiya Project will begin with classes on Applied IT and Global Studies, but plans are in place to increase the range of courses to include Social Science, Engineering, Heatlh Science, the Arts, language courses, and more.

New Research Voices Article Image 1_revisedThese courses are not only varied but relevant to young Syrians’ experiences and needs during migration. O’Keeffe says that they help build specific and important skills for refugee students: “We want to reach those students who face major barriers such as financing their studies, committing to full time studies, and inadequate linguistic skills.” Courses are free and flexible while at the same time a high quality education. Partners that have joined Jamiya Project include universities and organizations like the University of Gothenburg, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Open Society Foundation, Asfari Foundation, and more. Additionally, the academics who provide content and guidance for courses are world class scholars.

“We see Jamiya Project as a sustainable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East,” O’Keeffe says. “It will help provide Syrian students with the skills, attitude and knowledge to empower themselves and their community and ultimately to be future leaders in their country.” It also benefits Syrian scholars who are in need of students to educate to carry out their professions. O’Keeffe believes that both scholars and students “need the other. I appreciate that educators do what they do for more than just a pay check. Being a teacher is not just a ‘job,’ but a vocation.” This mutually benefiting relationship is mediated by Jamiya Project and reflects NRV’s mission to create a space for knowledge to come back into the hands of the public. In addition, it highlights what has been missed in the experiences of refugees: “It was really devastating to speak to some of the academics who want nothing more than to educate their students, and to hear about their worries for the students back home.”

New Research Voices Article Image 2_revisedWhat has been one of the most rewarding parts of the project for O’Keeffe is what it has revealed about the individuals he has met through the project. He says, “So many of the Syrian academics we work with will do whatever it takes to make sure the project is a success and that their former students’ education prospects are not completely devastated by the war. It is such an energizing experience to work with such people, to help to reconnect teachers and their students and assist Syrians in determining their own future.” He believes that his experiences with Jamiya Project are directly tied to the fact that it is intent on listening to what academics and students are saying. “We want other organizations to look to our experience as a model of best practice. People in the academic community are only too willing to do what they can to improve the lives of others. By harnessing these intentions and providing a workable method to deliver education there is no reason that other organisations in other parts of the world can’t do the same.”

The model for New Research Voices, and for Jamiya Project, is a “method of connection” that transcends barriers like location, language, and access. The organization has seen the importance of seeking out and helping refugees who haven’t yet made it ashore, but who are intent on not only learning, but teaching. By paying close attention to what teachers, students, and the international academic community is saying about how they want to help, NRV and Jamiya Project have made it possible for both researchers and students seeking knowledge to have a voice.


Paul O’Keeffe is an academic adviser and one of the organizers of The Jamiya Project. He is also the co-founder of New Research Voices and has recently completed a doctorate at Sapienza University of Rome, where his research looked at the developing higher education system in Ethiopia. He has degrees in Psychology, Marketing and International Economics and Political Studies, and various certificates in Training and Development and International Development Studies. He has previously worked with Voluntary Services Overseas with Burmese exiles in Thailand, on the management of the Irish Aid Fellowship Programme, as an Inter-Cultural Awareness Trainer with the Irish Council for International Students and as a Lecturer at Charles University in Prague and University College Dublin. He has also contributed to The Guardian and ESAT television’s coverage of development in Ethiopia. His main interests are international development, human rights and education.

Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University.

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