Equity in Education: Achieving Migrant and Refugee Children’s Integration in host Communities

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A few weeks ago, as I was thinking about what I would say about equity in education in the Global Education Forum (GEF) - WISE’s panel, I remembered meeting Edgar and his mom in Cúcuta, Colombia a few months back. His story, I thought, would help me illustrate the role that equity in education has on migrant learners’ lives and how education often paves the way for migrant families’ integration in host communities. 

Colombia faces a “mixed migratory flow” of Venezuelans, which includes migrants, refugees, returnees and stateless persons. In 2021, Colombia adopted a Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Venezuelans. As of April 2023, more than 1.6 million TPS permits have been granted. Although migrants and refugees have different legal statuses and rights, they share many of the same challenges. 

I met Edgar during a visit by USAID’s Center for Education directors to Colombia back in March 2023. He is a 15-year-old boy full of life and wonder. It struck me, hearing him and his mom, Maria Alejandra, speak so enthusiastically about how one of USAID’s Juntos Aprendemos accelerated education models had changed their life. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about his story.  untos Aprendemos is a project financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  The project helps strengthen the Colombian education system’s ability to provide high-quality education, and improve student access to and retention in education, in communities impacted by migration.

As life often goes, however, the visit concluded, I returned to Bogotá, and I forgot to follow up on Edgar and his mom. That was, until I joined the GEF-WISE panel (starts at 5:41:49 of the video) held in Medellín in May 2023, and I started to think of them again. I found their contact information and called Maria Alejandra. What she told me about their journey moved me to tears, and I want others to know their story. 

Like more than 7 million of her compatriots have done during the past half decade, Maria Alejandra left Venezuela in 2018 seeking a better future for herself and her family. She moved to Cúcuta, Colombia alone, leaving her three children with their father in Venezuela. In early 2019, Maria Alejandra was able to return to Venezuela to get her youngest son, Edgar. At this point, Maria Alejandra’s older children were already young adults taking care of themselves, but Edgar was still a young boy, he had just finished 6th grade, and food shortages in Venezuela had caused him to become malnourished.

Upon arriving back in Cúcuta, Maria Alejandra enrolled Edgar in school. For reasons unknown to her, he was placed in 4th grade. Edgar eventually recuperated his health, and he re-completed 4th and 5th grades. Starting in 2021, Edgar enrolled in 6th grade, but he was not actually able to attend school due to COVID-19 and the fact that his classes were being delivered remotely. As a result, Edgar lost the school year. “We just couldn’t afford an electronic device with internet for him to stay in school,” María Alejandra told me. 

In 2022, Edgar enrolled in Caminar en Secundaria (“Walk in Middle School”), one of the accelerated education model programs implemented by Juntos Aprendemos in Cúcuta. Thanks to this program, Edgar was able to complete 6th and 7th grades in one year.  Just as important, through this accelerated education program, Edgar made new friends and gained a sense of community that he previously lacked.

Not only does Juntos Aprendemos scale-up accelerated education models for students like Edgar, but it has also helped educators incorporate social-emotional learning into these models. In turn, strengthened social-emotional skills enable Venezuelan children and adolescents to express their hopes and fears, make new social connections, and integrate into their host communities in Colombia. 

Venezuelan children and youth are three times more likely to be over-age than their Colombian peers due to various factors including but not limited to the migration trajectory, subjective placement strategies/systems by education authorities in host communities, lack of space in corresponding grade levels, and unclear administrative procedures. These issues are discussed at length in a recent article published by Juntos Aprendemos. 

Flexible and accelerated education can mean the difference between accessing a relevant education, having the opportunity to catch up and transition to other education opportunities or livelihoods, whilst also integrating into their community. Conversely, the lack of such programs often means migrant and refugee children are altogether left out of the education system. Dropping out of school makes migrant youth even more vulnerable to risk factors such as human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and poverty. 

Edgar completed his accelerated education program successfully and, in 2023, he re-enrolled back in 8th grade in traditional education. Maria Alejandra said that accelerated education models are often frowned upon and underappreciated. She doesn’t understand why. In her own words, accelerated education saved her family. Without the accelerated education program, she thinks Edgar would have dropped out of school and she would have had to quit her job to look after him. “We probably would be selling things in the street or begging,” she added.  

Equity in education comprises two important components: fairness and inclusion. Though we do not know for sure, placing Edgar in 4th grade was probably unfair. There is no standard placement test in Colombia, so it is often up to schools and teachers to place learners in a grade, sometimes with some level of subjectivity. Placing migrant children at the right level can be particularly tricky as it is more challenging to use equivalencies, children might have been out of school for extended periods, and other conditions associated to the migratory status, like malnourishment or trauma, can play a role in their grade placement and school performance. On top of this, biases and lack of space in schools are a reality. It was also unfair that Edgar lost 6th grade for not having the resources to get an electronic  device when education is his right.  

Thankfully, Caminar en Secundaria helped Edgar catch up in school and helped him develop a new sense of belonging in his community. This is, in my mind, what equity in education looks like for a migrant child. An education that factors in the child’s conditions, needs, and rights, thus guaranteeing fairness and inclusion.  

He is in 8th grade now and he loves it. He is an amazing musician and soccer player. We thank our Father [God] for the many blessings we have received in this country [Colombia],” said Maria Alejandra when I asked her how they are doing now after the adversity they faced.

Her response moved me to tears and reminded me why it is that I do this work. I am honored to share Edgar and Maria Alejandra’s story, and to advocate for them and all migrant and refugee learners. I am grateful to WISE and INEE for allowing me to use their platforms to share this story, as it illustrates the power of education to foster integration of migrant children and families in their host communities.

*This story is shared with the express consent of the individuals involved.

Headshot authorGustavo Payán-Luna is an international development specialist with experience in conflict-affected and fragile environments. An impassioned advocate for education in crisis and conflict, he builds programs and influences policy to foster peace and prosperity through access to learning and livelihoods. Gustavo is currently the Chief of Party of USAID’s Juntos Aprendemos project in Colombia. He previously served as senior technical advisor and Deputy Chief of Party of the Asegurando la Educacion project in Honduras. He served as a co-chair of the Policy and Advocacy Working Groups from the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) between 2015 and 2021.

Prior to his roles in Colombia and Honduras, Gustavo served as a lead facilitator of conflict-sensitive education capacity development efforts, launching INEE’s global initiative and supporting UNICEF Colombia. He managed and provided technical assistance to USAID education, youth and local capacity development projects in Cyprus, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. Gustavo holds a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and a M.A. in international development from Brandeis University. Gustavo is originally from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and his favorite role is being a dad.


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