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How Healthcare Workers with Refugee Backgrounds are helping combat COVID-19 and why you should care

Updated: Jan 10


Tamon Mark Andang Asongwe is one of many healthcare professionals with a refugee background who is tirelessly working against COVID-19.


An employee at an elderly care facility in his home in Athens, Asongwe is showing up for the people he supports, and working to keep spirits high, according to a report published in Time earlier this year. Asongwe came to Greece via boat in 2018; prior to that, he was in Turkey after being jailed for political activism in his home country of Cameroon. A lockdown for COVID-19 felt drastically different, and Asongwe has seen this as a time to show his gratitude for his chance to live a normal life by caring for the Greek people, he told Time.

Asongwe’s inspiring story is just one of many. In France, doctors from Libya and Somalia joined the ranks of refugee medics working to save lives, and Australia got to work compiling a list of internationally registered health care professionals early in the crisis.



The staggering speed at which COVID-19 tore across the globe reminded the world what a global community we truly are; the refugee medic response to the crisis reminds us why we all win when we honor that global community.

Now half a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s critical to examine the damage the pandemic is wreaking on vulnerable populations – like refugees – and why we all stand to lose if we don’t invest in education. In fact, the world has agreed quality education is a critical component of global development, setting quality education as goal 4 in the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, and challenging citizens of the globe to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Imagine a global healthcare crisis without a response from a global medical community.



COVID 19: Wreaking havoc on refugee populations

Getting into the classroom was already a challenge for refugee students, but the school closures disrupted an estimated 1.6 Billion students, according to UNICEF, among them millions of displaced children.


Connecting refugee students with education has been an uphill battle, with an estimated 1 in 4 refugee children attending secondary school and less than half of school-aged refugee children enrolled overall, according to the UN Refugee Agency.


Not only does school closure stall progress in core academic subjects, but it can also halt language adoption and increase the risks of violent gang activity. For example, in Honduras, school is often one refuge from being targeted – or recruited - by gangs, according to the UNHCR. And an estimated 84 percent of refugees are hosted by low-income or middle-income nations, which tend to have weaker sanitation, water, and health systems, exacerbating challenges of having basic needs met.


This uphill battle to education can be a form of discrimination, and the Global Goals speak directly to this with target 4.5, aiming to eliminate all forms of discrimination in education by 2030 - including children in vulnerable situations.


An investment in our global future

Equipping refugee children with an education is equipping our futures with brighter outcomes – just look at the impact today’s medically trained refugees have made on the crisis at hand or the quick adaptation to making face masks from refugee tailors.


By 2030, the Global Goals have established a target (4.7) of equipping all learning with the skills and knowledge they need in turn to promote global sustainability - and this crisis is an opportunity to enact that by designing plans that equip vulnerable children today.


As schools work to roll out distance learning programs, they should ensure they are accessible for refugees. Some practical steps include:


Equip families with devices, data services, and Internet access to keep them from cutting family budgets to gain an education


Support organizations like the UNHCR that help pay food and rent while many refugee families are without an income


Advocate for STEAM-based education, language courses, and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) to support students during an especially traumatic time


Encourage innovation in education support services and digital technology that can reach students in new ways


Plan now for intentional interventions to help catch up with at-risk populations


Consider refugees in preparedness and response plans, and make information accessible in applicable languages


As Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees writes in Stepping Up, “[Education is the surest road to recovering a sense of purpose and dignity after the trauma of displacement. It is – or should be – the route to labor markets and economic self-sufficiency, spelling an end to months, or sometimes years of depending on others. Compared to the trillions of dollars wasted on conflict, and the cost to societies and economies when ordinary civilians are forcibly displaced en masse, this is a no-brainer investment.”