Making global citizenship education possible for refugees

Members of the School Parliament organize a puppet show to promote inclusion and tolerance, Jordan. (Photo: @2014 UNRWA, Alaa Ghosheh.)

Ozlem Eskiocak Oguzertem

Human Rights Education Programme Coordinator
UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

All around the world we are witnessing an increased focus on global citizenship education (GCE). Fostering global citizenship was listed as one of the three priorities of the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative (2012). Then came the global consultations on GCE. This in turn led to the first “pedagogical guidance” from UNESCO on GCE with: Global Citizenship Education: Topics and Learning Objectives.

As elaborated in that pioneering document, global citizenship refers to a sense of belonging to a common humanity.[1] And the values of that common humanity are underpinned by human rights. Accordingly the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA[2]) delivers GCE through its Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme.

At UNRWA, we developed a Human Rights Education Policy with a vision to provide human rights education that empowers Palestine refugee students to enjoy their rights, uphold human rights values, and contribute positively to their society and the global community. We implement this policy through a Human Rights Education Toolkit for teachers. There are three elements to this approach.[3]

The first element is integration. We do not discuss global human rights issues as a separate subject or as a discrete programme. Instead, we train and guide all our 19,000 teachers to integrate human rights issues into the regular subjects taught, thereby reaching 500,000 refugee children.

The second element is active student engagement. We have explicit fun activities where children learn while they play. For example through the Toolkit activity, ‘If the World Were 100 People’, children play a game to discover how diverse the world is while also learning about statistics. Activities like this give Palestine refugee students a chance to explore diversity and discuss global issues even though they may have never set foot outside their places of birth.

Third, we have a strong ‘action and application’ element in our approach. Application of human rights concepts is important because GCE is not just about knowledge and understanding, but particularly about attitudes and behaviour change. Young people don’t want to just learn about problems and feel powerless, they want to act and instigate change.

To strengthen the application of the human rights concepts, UNRWA has established School Parliaments in all of our 691 schools across the five fields where we operate. These elected School Parliaments empower young people to become responsible and proactive contributors to their communities through practical projects. School Parliaments’ projects have resulted in greater participation of people with disabilities in community life, greener environments, and increased participation of children in decision-making.

LEFT: Members of the School Parliament organize a puppet show to promote inclusion and tolerance, Jordan. (Photo: @2014 UNRWA, Alaa Ghosheh) RIGHT: Members of the Student Parliament perform a song disseminating human rights messages to parents and members of the local community during Human Rights Day celebrations, West Bank. (Photo: @2014 UNRWA)

We do our work in human rights education in a very challenging context. In war torn Syria, the occupied Palestinian territory which comprises the Gaza Strip (under blockade) and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Jordan and Lebanon, where the influx of Palestine refugees from Syria has added to the challenges of the existing camps. Some children witness human rights violations on a daily basis.

The main challenge we face is the daily dichotomy we deal with: the human rights values we promote versus the realities on the ground. For example, last year, I was observing a class in Gaza after the hostilities of the summer of 2014. The students were going through one of our human rights activities in which they were asked to draw their ideal world. Some of these 8 year-old children drew rockets directed at their homes because that was their reality. In other words, even the blue skies in their drawings were littered with rockets.

Another challenge faced at the beginning was the distrust of the community and teachers in global human rights discourse. When we first began our work in human rights education, some of our teachers asked: “how can I teach human rights when my own rights as refugees are not respected?” And the community members were also questioning the value of human rights education.

The key to addressing these challenges was a participatory process. This was achieved through a lengthy pre-testing phase with teachers, students, and the broader community. While it is important to have international best practices meet frontline needs, in the end it is the teachers who best understand their local context. Creating a space for grievances surrounding their own human rights—or lack thereof—to be aired resulted in ownership of the process. And the prospect of future generations enjoying the rights they were denied has led to many opponents of GCE since becoming our most vocal champions.

In order to address misinterpretations of human rights education, open days were also held where community members conducted human rights activities with the students. They saw first-hand how empowering it was for children to know and demand their rights, and how the School Parliament human rights projects were benefiting the whole community.

LEFT: “Human rights are like a compass that direct us to humanity.” Father of UNRWA student, Lebanon. (Photo: @2014 UNRWA) RIGHT: “We parents were not fully aware of most of these rights. We saw how our children were discussing their rights as mature and empowered people.” Mother of UNRWA student, Syria. (Photo: @2014 UNRWA)

Such engagement is important because human rights learner competencies, especially the attainment of human rights attitudes, values and skills, can only be fully realized if parents and communities are on board. Otherwise there will be a school-home divide where children are not able to practice what they have learned. To further address this divide awareness raising animated videos targeting the community were also produced. These videos communicate how human rights education promotes gender equality, human rights within the community, respect, and peaceful conflict resolution.


A final challenge worth noting is the lack of ‘contact’ with the global world—an issue faced by many refugees. While our students learn about global issues and values they often become frustrated that they are unable to experience this world. They learn about diversity but possess limited opportunities to interact with people from elsewhere. They often ask me if others know of their plight.

The pilot approach here is connecting our students with students from around the world, so they can take their discussion and action to a global level. You can watch a video here where you will see Palestine refugee students from Syria, displaced once again, their human rights violated again, yet they are able to partner with students from the UK to advocate for their right to education locally and globally. This video exemplifies some of the attitudes of a global citizen that peace education practitioners would like to foster.

As shown in the video, given the chance, young people are able to connect with that common humanity. While the education they receive gives them the competencies, projects like #MyVoiceMySchool give them that global human contact.

Global citizenship for all is a long-term endeavour. At UNRWA, we recognize our part in the evolutionary process of GCE and take action to engage refugees in this process.

UNRWA’s Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme is generously funded by the US Government.

The views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.


[1] UNESCO, Global Citizenship Education: Topics and Learning Objectives, 2015, page 14.

[2] UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

[3] You can read more about UNRWA’s approach to human rights education here



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