By Callan Lawrence

For millions of young refugees around the world, education is a bridge to opportunity and a more secure life. But those same young boys and girls are often prevented from attending school by more basic obligations, including caring for younger siblings, cooking, cleaning and other household chores. This is especially common for girls and young women.

In Malaysia, where many refugees reside without legal status, a group of students from refugee backgrounds have launched an app and education program they hope will help other young refugees access education.

Jessica Chapman is Co-Founder of Teach for Refugees and Chief Operating officer of Payong which is an umbrella organisation that runs the Fugee School for refugees in Malaysia. Jessica said she saw low attendance of girls, or many arriving late, and began asking questions.

“Students at the Fugee School would come late to school or miss school because they had other responsibilities,” she said. “When we looked further into those responsibilities we found that they were often cooking, cleaning, childcare and helping families with translations. We found that this was the case not only for students coming late or missing school but also for those who wanted to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as football. It was particularly the case for female students.”

The school is also home to Project Stand Up, a unique group of students consisting of three young women and five young men from Libya, Somalia and Yemen, which has been fighting to break down barriers to education for girls and to educate their communities on gender equality.

As two members of Project Stand Up, Fatimah and Sabri, wrote recently in a blog:

“Girls in the Somali community are focused on tasks at home, whereas boys are focused on work and studies. Girls have fewer opportunities to access education because of what the community tells them. They tell them that girls are meant to stay at home; girls are good at cooking, cleaning and taking care of their kids or younger siblings. These ideas have become norms and these norms have created barriers, which make girls in our community participate less in learning activities and lose, or not develop, their confidence.”

When one male student, Amiin 17, from Somalia, missed school repeatedly to take his sister to medical appointments, Jessica asked him if there was anyone who could take his sister for him. There was not.

“This made us think about how the support system for refugee families is very different than a stable context where people may have their families with them to support them, or an income to hire help, such as by paying a babysitter,” Jessica explained. “The idea for a technological solution was born out of this realisation that a support network was lacking when it came to getting support with household help that was needed.”

Around the same time, HOST International began working with the Fugee School. HOST Special Projects Manager Melita Smilovic heard about the Project Stand Up students’ idea for an app that would allow families to find help so their children could attend school and set about helping them.

With support from HOST and Payong, the students entered a submission to the global Education in Emergencies Challenge. Project Stand Up was one of seven winners selected from 382 entries and funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in partnership with MIKTA and the innovationXchange.

Then the hard work began. The teenage students, with no prior experience in app design undertook human centred design workshops and continued expanding their knowledge of gender equality. They were supported with project management and expertise from HOST as they set about designing their app.

The app, which will be officially launched on Thursday 13 December, allows families from refugee communities to post jobs they require, such as childcare, translation services or cooking. Community ‘champions’ who have been recruited and coached for their roles can then volunteer to fulfill those jobs that would otherwise prevent a young girl from attending school.

The app is now in a pilot phase and helping young refugees gain a life-changing education. And all of this was accomplished by a small group of teenagers who have no legal status in Malaysia, where they live.

Yusra Aseyr, 17, is one of the Project Stand Up team members responsible for the app and gender equality training.

“I hope when our project is successful we have achieved our main goal for the project, eliminating gender inequality in our community and every other community,” she said.

“Young people are able to share ideas and make decisions, and young people can be change agents.”

This program is supported by Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and innovationExchange (iXc).