Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide

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An Iraqi school girl studies remotely through a tablet in Baghdad on March 25, 2020 amidst a lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. (AFP)
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Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the "White Helmets", helped by Turkish health organisations, sterilise a school in the area of Ghosn al-Zeitun in Afrin as part of a campaign to disinfect schools against the coronavirus in the Afrin region of of Aleppo, Syria. (AFP/File Photo)
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Palestinian health workers prepare a stretcher at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) school at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. (AFP/File Photo)
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A Syrian medic holds an awareness campaign on how to be protected against the novel coronavirus pandemic, in a camp for displaced people in Kafr Lusin, in the northwestern province of Idlib, following heavy storms. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 14 May 2020

Coronavirus crisis reveals the Arab world’s great e-learning divide

  • Regional organizations looking for ways to support remote teaching of refugee students
  • Experts underscore need for creative solutions to conflict zones’ educational challenges

DUBAI: As online learning gathers pace to become the new norm for millions of students worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, regional foundations are lending a helping hand to refugees who may not have the privilege of online access.

Educational experts say it is crucial that organizations find ways to support refugee students at this time.

“One of the biggest challenges to helping vulnerable students in this crisis has been the lack of alternatives to online learning,” said Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Shaikh Saud bin Saqr Al-Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al-Khaimah, the UAE.

The challenge is especially big when one considers the fact that “refugees and students worldwide who are disadvantaged often don’t have access to devices or the internet,” she told Arab News.

“There are other options such as project-based learning, using the materials that students have around them, no matter how basic, that could offer cost-effective, low-tech solutions for independent learning when in-class lessons can’t take place,” Ridge said.

“But while online learning is important for refugee children, it isn’t necessarily the only answer. Distance education has been taking place across the world for decades.”

Technicians from the Kurdish educational authorities, prepare recorded classes to be broadcast on local television and Youtube for distance learning, in Qamishli, Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province. (AFP/File Photo)

Judith Finnemore, an education consultant in the UAE, expressed similar sentiments, noting that education is the only route out of continued poverty for refugee children.

“Refugee populations include many children whose families have been stateless and homeless for a number of generations, such as Palestinians, and now an alarming number of Syrians and other nationalities are losing their homes,” Finnemore told Arab News.

“When you’re a child your home is your roots, and it isn’t their fault that they don’t have roots,” she said.

“School can be the only stable thing in their life and, in the current situation, providing a way for them to continue their education is vital.”


Jordan and Lebanon are among the top 10 hosts of refugees globally — UNHCR

She cited the example of Tendai, one of her former Ugandan students and a refugee who was accepted at Oxford University.

“He was shocked. He didn’t think such a prestigious institution would accept him. The day he graduated, he thanked me for encouraging him to raise his aspirations at school,” Finnemore said.

“Today, Tendai is an investment banker and a very successful one. We must do everything we can to encourage such children, particularly now.”

A Palestinian girl displays a package of crafts and reading material distributed by volunteers for the Women's Program Center to children in Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Ridge provided a similar example of how schools can empower children to wake up to their potential.

Alice Springs School of the Air in Australia has been operating for over 60 years to help students who live in some of the world’s most remote areas with no access to schools.

“While there’s a technological component now, that hasn’t always been the case. (The school) uses a lot of physical resources and self-guided materials so students can learn at their own pace,” Ridge said.

“We need to develop more of these kinds of materials for refugee camps so students are able to continue to learn no matter what.”

A Palestinian teacher Jihad Abu Sharar presenting an online class from her home in the village of Dura near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, after school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)

One of the prominent entities promoting education in the region is the UAE-based Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE).

Launched in 2015 to support high-quality education opportunities for Emirati and other Arab youth, it is one of the largest privately funded philanthropic organizations in the region.

In response to the pandemic, AGFE last week inaugurated a COVID-19 Online Learning Emergency Fund, as part of its Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair Refugee Education Fund, to support the educational prospects of refugee children and youth across camps in Jordan and Lebanon, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The reality is that, according to UNESCO, the percentage of people with a master’s or equivalent in the Arab world is lower than the global average. 

Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, CEO of Abdulla Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education

“Online learning has become the new norm to ensure the continuity of education for millions of students across the world, and we know that access to this modality of learning is restricted for too many refugee communities,” said AFGE Chairman Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair.

“Refugee education has been severely affected by the pandemic, and the aim of launching the fund is to collaborate with grantees and partners to find creative solutions to the pressing needs of refugees and vulnerable students.”

The emergency fund promotes the continuation of existing programs for refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, to counter the impact of precautionary measures meant to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The fund’s objectives focus on the gaps and challenges faced by the most vulnerable refugee youth and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon, which the UNHCR says are among the top 10 countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees globally.

Palestinian activists and volunteers for the Women's Program Center disinfect and prepare crafts and reading material packages to distribute to children in the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Aiming to reach 6,000 children and youth, the fund focuses specifically on refugees living in overcrowded camps, informal tent settlements and congested host communities, where access to online education is currently out of reach.

It will help organizations address their challenges in transferring their education programs to online modalities or TV. Logistical barriers such as lack of connectivity and technology access will be addressed through the provision of internet connection, laptops and tablets, as well as technical support for digital content.

The fund will also provide access to innovative learning methods, such as high-quality bilingual educational platforms and online tutoring support.

Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair, chairman of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation (AGFE), during a visit to the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. (Supplied)

“The world is going through challenging times,” said Khaled Khalifa, senior adviser and Gulf Cooperation Council representative at the UNHCR, which has highlighted the need for more support to refugee education.

“The spread of COVID-19 is disrupting the lives and education of millions of refugees. The partnership between the UNHCR and the fund will help refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, who aren’t equipped with the necessary tools, to join their peers in distance learning without further exposing them to infection.”

Syrian refugees check the damage following a fire that ripped through their refugee camp in the village of Yammouneh in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley in 2018. (AFP/File Photo)

To date, the fund supports 11 organizations that are collectively reaching over 17,000 refugee and vulnerable youth, and aims to benefit 20,000 refugee youth in Jordan and Lebanon, and conflict-affected children residing in the UAE, by 2022.

Another AGFE program is the Al-Ghurair Open Learning Scholars Program (OLSP), which was designed to provide high-achieving Arab youth from disadvantaged backgrounds with educational opportunities.

“The reality is that according to UNESCO, the percentage of people with a master’s or equivalent in the Arab world is lower than the global average,” AGFE CEO Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar told Arab News.

“Our OLSP scholars are talented Arab youth who’ll enter post-graduate degree programs at Arizona State University without leaving homes.”

Abdul Aziz Al-Ghurair, chairman of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation (AGFE), with some students. (Supplied)

She said AGFE has ensured that students who cannot afford the high fees of elite universities will be able to access elite graduate programs while remaining connected to their communities.

“Online learning is a key solution to help these deserving students enrol in master’s degrees for programs like clinical research management and biomimicry, to become globally competitive specialists,” said Ben Jaafar.

“This is good for them as individuals, but even better for our region since they’ll continue to contribute to the development of their nations.”


Arab e-Learning

Jordan and Lebanon are among the top 10 hosts of refugees globally. (Source: UNHCR) 

LIVE: Middle East returns to normal life amid strict COVID-19 measures 

Updated 59 min 19 sec ago

LIVE: Middle East returns to normal life amid strict COVID-19 measures 

DUBAI: Efforts to return life gradually back to some kind of normality in parts of the Middle East continue, as governments get ready to reopen borders and airlines take bookings for flights. 
Tunisia said it will open its sea, land and air borders on June 27 in the hope of rescuing its tourism industry as the coronavirus pandemic comes under control.
Emirates airline also announced that it was taking bookings for flights from Dubai to 12 Arab countries from the start of July. Emirates began operating scheduled flight services to nine destinations around the world from May 21, including London Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan, Madrid, Chicago, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s commercial complexes, hotels, cafes and museums reopened their doors to customers on Monday after closing for two-and-a-half months. 

June 2, Tuesday (GMT Times)

10:24 - Kuwait has confirmed 887 coronavirus cases and the recovery of 50 percent of total infected people.

10:22 - UAE has recorded 596 coronavirus cases and 388 recoveries.

09:43 - New reported cases of coronavirus are steadily declining in Western Europe, but not in Russia and Eastern Europe: World Health Organization spokeswoman said.

09:34 - Formula One has unveiled an eight-race schedule in Europe from July 5 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

09:32 - Iran has reported 64 coronavirus deaths, 3,117 cases, raising total infected people to 157,562 with 7,942 fatalities.

09:20 - The number of coronavirus deaths in Britain is close to 50,000, Reuters reported.

09:07 – Hong Kong will extend restrictions on foreign visitors by another three months and an eight-person limit on group gatherings by two weeks, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said on Tuesday.
Both measures were due to expire later in June.
Travellers to Hong Kong need to undergo a mandatory 14 day quarantine period.

08:45 – 12,739 people died from coronavirus in England and Wales as of May 22, the Office for National Statistics said.

08:16 – Senegal has postponed the restart of schools until further notice after several teachers tested positive for the new coronavirus, the education ministry said late on Monday.

07:51 – Russia has confirmed 8,863 coronavirus cases and 182 deaths in the past 24 hours.

07:02 – A Wuhan doctor who worked with coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang died of the virus last week, state media reported Tuesday, becoming China's first COVID-19 fatality in weeks.
07:00 Paris gets some of its pre-lockdown life back as cafes and restaurants partially reopen Tuesday.
06:51 – The global coronavirus death toll has topped 375,000, according to AFP tally.

06:45 – The first Rohingya refugee died from coronavirus in Bangladesh, an official said.

05:59Egypt has sanitized prisons and carried out tests on prisoners across the country after banning visits to help curb the spread of coronavirus, local daily Egypt Today reported.

05:50 – A cluster of nine coronavirus cases raised concerns in Hong Kong over renewed local transmission in a city that has been one of the most successful in keeping the pandemic under control. 

05:18 – The United States on Monday recorded 743 new coronavirus deaths in 24 hours, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, bringing its total to 105,099 since the global pandemic began.