Refugee inventors prove the power of education



Louise, Aline and Kapinga* are hardly household names in Australia. They are slightly better known in Malawi, where they live. Together with their two teachers at Dzaleka Secondary Community Day School, they received the prestigious Scientific and Technological Innovation Award at the Malawian National Schools Science Fair. Their project? The design and manufacture, from local materials, of an affordable lifejacket.

Louise, Aline and KapingaSub-Saharan Malawi is blessed with abundant seasonal rainfall, many rivers and the impressive Lake Malawi, a 700km-long body of water that lies at the start of the African rift valley and forms much of Malawi's eastern border with Mozambique. Boats on the lake rarely carry life jackets. There have been several recent tragedies: a year ago a boat carrying 80 passengers and cargo capsized, with the loss of 25 people and tonnes of local agricultural produce being carried to market. In 2012, another boat carrying immigrants also capsized, drowning 47.

Life jackets cost $17, an amount well out of reach of most Malawians. Albert, one of the teachers, explained, 'There are a lot of accidents ... Some of the deaths can be preventable, only if people are equipped to swim or float to safety.'

Their life jacket uses 26 half litre plastic bottles, three square metres of polythene, and several metres of twine. It is big enough to provide buoyancy for people of at least 61kg body mass. 'The materials used in the making of the life jacket are easy to get,' Aline added. 'Plastic sheets are easy to get, and people can reuse empty water or soft drink plastic bottles. This is also good for the environment.'

In many ways this is an ordinary story: it could be about any group of creative, enterprising young people who are blessed with two committed educators in a good school.

But it is extraordinary in a number of ways, mostly for the fact that these students are in school in the first place. Louise, Aline and Kapinga are all refugees residing at the 35,000-people Dzaleka Refugee Camp. Worldwide, only 23 per cent of such refugee children reach secondary school (against an average of 84 per cent). That they do here is the result of an collaboration between and hard work by people from at least 20 different countries.

Cooperation of this kind is not uncommon. Groups such as Jesuit Mission, Caritas Australia, Catholic Mission Australia, Jesuit Refugee Service and a whole host of other agencies act as catalysts to bring ordinary Australians into touch with areas of extreme need. They do so in a manner that goes well outside the realm of assistance for shorter term emergencies, and run counter to the trend, in recent years, of governments like Australia's to decrease foreign aid. Such collaborations are based less on national self-interest than, in this case, the reality of refugee situations which last on average, from 11 to 21 years.


"It is a quiet way, rarely acknowledged by government, in which countries like Australia with hitherto positive migration policies have built positive international influence and contributed to peace-making."


The work is long term and future oriented: it relies heavily on lasting personal and professional networks that reach across multiple borders, generating high degrees of accountability and flexibility to adjust programs to make them more effective and maximise impact. In this context, Jesuit Mission has had an association with Jesuit Refugee Service's Dzaleka Secondary School since it opened in 2010.

Such intensive cooperation is needed now more than ever. Value chains of production and service are increasingly centred around technology-enabled links between people, organisations and governments. Job markets are rapidly changing to favour those who have, not only literacy and numeracy, but also advanced digital skills. It is now possible for some refugees in camps and urban areas to work for big American and Chinese technology companies in data entry and analytics, and even in software development. To gain access to this kind of work refugees, like anyone, need access to quality education and technology.

Debates around foreign aid and the welcoming of refugees evoke mixed emotions. While there have undoubtedly been episodes of misuse and misappropriation, well targeted and managed aid does make a real difference to people's lives. But currently, for every dollar of government and private foreign aid, over three dollars are sent to developing countries in the form of remittances from migrants who now live in the developed world. This money is not just to help out in a crisis situation: much of it is used for investment towards income generation. It is a quiet way, rarely acknowledged by government, in which countries like Australia with hitherto positive migration policies have built positive international influence and contributed to peace-making.

What remittances generally don't do is invest in schools. There is much research on the close links between education and income levels in later life, and a reverse relation between education and the risk of young people adopting radical and violent ideologies. It is a wonder therefore that funding for education is extraordinarily difficult to find. The work of these Australian agencies is vital.

Louise and Aline have set their eyes on doing medicine when they graduate, Kapinga on entering into business as a company manager. In the meantime, they want to train people to make their life jackets. The team is looking forward to partnering with interested organisations to promote their project so that Malawians can interact with their water resources safely at the same time as contributing to a cleaner environment.

In all this they are leaning the skills of management, working as a team, leveraging resources and, most importantly, negotiating an interconnected world.

*Not their real names.



writerAustralian Jesuit Fr David Holdcroft is higher education specialist for Jesuit Refugee Service International. Materials, quotes and story used with permission from JRS Southern Africa.

Photo of Louise, Aline and Kapinga courtesy JRS Southern Africa.

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, Malawi, refugees, Jesuit Refugee Service, Jesuit Mission


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Existing comments

Well done young women & supporting teachers. Any half awake nation would vying to win the honour of accepting you and your families as citizens. I hope that happens for you soon.
Bev henwood | 27 February 2018

Great article David. It’s a blueprint for just what refugee work entails: long term, future orientated, teamwork, flexible, accountable. Thanks.
Steve sinn | 27 February 2018

Great to see this. So many wonderful and creative things going on in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp. This is a great initiative and I'd like to go up (from Blantyre) to see them. Very inspiring.
Adele Jones | 27 February 2018

Thank you for this inspiring story. Thank you to the Jesuit Refugee Service and other services working solidly and creatively at the coalface to give life and hope.
Christine Choo | 01 March 2018

Good call, Steve. God bless your ministry, David.
Jack | 05 March 2018

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