SUN 17 - 11 - 2019
Jan 31, 2019
The Daily Star
‘Backpack’ helps refugees safeguard academic records
Abby Sewell| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: When Jawad Kaisania was preparing to apply to a university in Lebanon to continue the education that had been interrupted by the war in Syria, he faced an obstacle common to many refugee students.
Kaisania, 25, is from Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region and fled to Lebanon six years ago. Amid the chaos of war and displacement, he told The Daily Star, he lost some of his personal documents, including his high school certificate.
A program developed at the University of California, Davis, and implemented in Lebanon in coordination with the American University of Beirut, aims to save displaced young people from the stress of losing such documents, while providing a platform that allows them to easily share their academic and other credentials when applying for schools, jobs and scholarships.
The Article 26 Backpack program, named for the article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that establishes the right to education, allows young people to upload academic documents like diplomas and transcripts as well as certificates from informal training programs, along with their CVs and short videos in which they present personal statements.
Keith David Watenpaugh, a professor and director of human rights studies at UC Davis and director of the Backpack program, had spent time living and conducting research in Syria before the war. He told The Daily Star that after the outbreak of the conflict, he was concerned about the ability of young people to complete their education and began to research the situation.
“Syria before the war had a very successful and well-developed higher education sector,” he said. “It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, but it did do a good job in helping to produce the Syrian middle class. ... With the war, many of the young people - college-age and those in university - had been displaced, and as we spoke to them, we began to find that they were facing enormous barriers to resuming their education.”
One of those barriers was the loss of documentation. Watenpaugh recalled that in 2016 he met a group of young Kurdish Syrian women at a refugee camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia. The women had been studying at the University of Aleppo before they fled Syria and had carried their academic records with them throughout the arduous journey through Turkey and across the Aegean Sea - until they were attacked and robbed in Bulgaria while trying to reach central Europe.
“I thought, ‘That shouldn’t happen,’” Watenpaugh said.
“That was one of the origin points for the Backpack, providing a very safe and universally accessible way for vulnerable people to store their academic documents and their records. ... On the other side, we wanted them to be able to share those documents with people who might be able to help them.”
The process is relatively simple: Users set up their personal Backpack and then can upload photographs of their relevant documents, as well as short video statements. The documents are stored on UC Davis’ server, Watenpaugh said, making them as secure as any student records. The users can choose to share all or part of the Backpack contents with potential employers, universities, organizations providing scholarships, career counselors and others.
Kaisania, who signed up for the Backpack program a few months ago, said he wished that the platform had existed at the time when he lost his high school certificate.
Fortunately for him, his mother was able to get him another copy of the document from Syria, but it was a lengthy process. “There was no school [anymore] in my village because it was in the middle of the war since 2013, so she went to the Ministry of Education in the main building and she applied and got the copy,” he said. “If I’d had something like Article 26 Backpack, I wouldn’t have had to get another copy because I would already have it.”
After sorting out his documentation issues, Kaisania was accepted to Lebanese International University, where he graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in internet technology. He received a scholarship to continue his studies and began a master’s program in computer science at AUB this semester.
He hopes to go on to work in the field of artificial intelligence.
The Backpack is not currently accepted on its own for university admissions applications, but Watenpaugh said negotiations were underway with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to set up standards for its use in applications.
Nour Zeidan, project coordinator for the Backpack program at AUB, said about 600 people have signed up for the platform in Lebanon since June, at events held in Beirut, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley, with the program also registering people outside Lebanon.
Watenpaugh said there were now more than 1,000 users around the world. They are primarily Syrians but also include Lebanese.
“Guides,” many of whom are themselves displaced Syrians studying at AUB on scholarships, help the users to upload their documents and to shoot their videos.
“Many students missed a few years of school because of the war, so in the video they can reflect on what happened during those years,” Zeidan said. At the same time, she said, the events provide an opportunity to give users career counseling and information about scholarships and other opportunities. At least one scholarship program, the U.N. refugee agency’s DAFI scholarship, specifically asks applicants if they have a Backpack, Zeidan said.
“They’ve had many obstacles and difficulties in their lives, but they still have a will to pursue higher education,” she said. “In the end, you see that you’re really helping the people who are really looking forward, and they’re really working to achieve their dreams.”
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