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Bringing The Five Practices to Life

When people are forced to leave their homes due to war, violence, or famine, they carry little with them but hope for a better future. Dotted across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, there are refugee camps filled with families with a desire to improve their lives yet without the tools to do so. Many reside at these camps for years, struggling to get even the most basic necessities for their families. So, how can these families go from basic survival to improving their lives and communities? And what can mission-driven organizations do to help?

The Society of Jesus, a religious order within the Catholic Church, is one of these mission-driven organizations trying to find solutions. Its members, known as Jesuits, are especially well known for their focus on education and social justice. Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins(JC:HEM) is an initiative of the Society of Jesus,  dedicated to bringing higher education to refugees and others who live at the margins where they are unserved, or underserved by higher education. Open to people of all faiths, the JC:HEM program mobilizes the resources of the worldwide network of Jesuit and other universities to bring higher education to those who need it most.  

Understanding the challenges that refugees face is to understand the mission of JC:HEM. According to Dr. Mary McFarland, JC:HEM International Director, “We know there is a domino effect from low education to high poverty to high conflict. If we tip this equation in those regions by making higher education accessible, will that lead to a decrease in poverty and a decrease in conflict? Even though it may take 20 to 30 years, those of us who have worked with these students believe it is possible.”

Refugee camps are filled with people of different races, ethnicities, and religions. Refugees arrive with little, if anything, and often from opposing warring tribes. They must find a way to live peacefully, side- by-side, leaving behind old prejudices while wondering about the fate of the homes, families, and friends. In addition, camp life has its own struggles. Basic needs—such as quality sanitation, plentiful food, and safe, potable water—are difficult to meet. Refugees face overwhelming odds, both physically and mentally.

In the midst of all this hardship is where JC:HEM has stepped in to provide opportunities for learning that offers these survivors a chance for a brighter future—for themselves and their families. JC:HEM’s mission is to provide eager learners with the knowledge they need to thrive both as community members of the refugee camps and as skilled individuals capable of excelling in a variety of types of work. And it has built a curriculum focused on liberal studies and also on practical skills.  The Diploma in Liberal Studies is awarded by Regis University, Denver Colorado, and several different universities award certificate-level programs. This education empowers students to reclaim their sense-of-self and take a leadership role in their communities.

Faculty from over 36 universities—primarily from the U.S. as well as from Mexico, Spain, India, Europe, and Africa—work with JC:HEM to provide courses online to refugees at camps in Malawi, Kenya, Chad, and to urban refugees in Jordan. One online class, created specifically to help refugees develop essential leadership skills, uses The Leadership Challenge as the core text. And currently, professors from U.S. universities such as Georgetown and Boston College are using The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model to teach cohorts of approximately 30 students each.

Neil Sparnon, the JC:HEM Academic Coordinator, sees a strong connection between the JC:HEM mission and The Leadership Challenge. In his words, he views the leadership class as “one of the most important classes offered” as it prepares students to “apply and deploy skills in their own services.” The key link that he and others at JC:HEM see between their mission and The Leadership Challenge is the emphasis on leadership in action.

As students learn leadership principles, they are able to apply them right away as leadership opportunities abound in these refugee camps. Domique, for example, is one individual who has taken a leadership role in his camp. After completing his JC:HEM program, he began to work as a water and sanitation monitor. He instructs others on how to prevent the spread of disease through proper use of hand washing and the correct way to obtain fresh, clean water. He encourages those he teaches to educate their families and neighbors (Enabling Others to Act) to make the camps safer and keep residents healthy.  According to Domique, “Sanitation has improved in the community as the camp now has people who have been educated in that field. I feel more helpful in the community because I have something that I can give. Thanks to JC:HEM for assisting me and other refugees with more skills and improving our way of looking at life.”

Peter, after completing his leadership course, started volunteering as President of the Dzaleka Sanitation Committee coordinated by the Office of the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees. From increasing access to clean water to ensuring that new toilets were installed, Peter faced many challenges. But in his new role, Peter became a guide for others (Modelling the Way) to be both a member of a community and a leader. Peter is now employed as a health surveillance assistant at the Dzaleka Health Centre where he helps to immunize children and teach about water and sanitation in the community and camp.

Inette, another JC:HEM graduate and the only female carpenter at her refugee camp in  Dzaleka, Kenya, also found ways to quickly apply her new leadership skills to address challenges and Enable Others to Act. From a workshop that she opened, she makes furniture and sells wood to other carpenters in the camp. She also has taught business skills to other women, to help them create small businesses of their own. Of her new role, she says, “I feel that JC:HEM has given me more value in the community, and I have gained knowledge that helps me do something for community and my family.”

Last year, JC:HEM celebrated a momentous occasion: graduation of the first cohort of students. Extending beyond the graduates to their families, friends, and community, there was much to celebrate. As the program graduates take on leadership roles in their communities, life there improves. They find that their newly-gained wisdom is trusted and valued by their peers. Program graduates, who have studied side-by-side with those from different backgrounds, are natural peacemakers. They are invited to help solve inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts that emerge. And their new-found leadership skills and confidence ripple through the community, encouraging more and more people to focus on improving camp life and living peacefully together.

JC:HEM students have now received the gift of knowledge and they want to use it to help themselves, their families, their communities.

Kakuma Camp Graduates, Kenya


Kareena Byrd,
Program Assistant for JC:HEM since 2011, can be reached at kareena.byrd@jc-hem.org. Christine Mulcahy is a freelance writer specializing in education. A graduate of Boston College and NYU, she has 12 years of experience as an educator, editor, and writer. christinemariemulcahy@gmail.com.


Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) today reaches over 900 students in Kenya, Malawi, Jordan, the Thai-Burma border and Afghanistan. The program offers a Diploma in Liberal Studies delivered online by volunteer faculty who teach in their subject area; leadership skills are a foundational element.  In addition, shorter Community Service Learning Tracks are offered that seek to enhance local vocational education by providing on-site facilitators and online access to faculty expertise and materials. JC:HEM works with a variety of partners and donors, and actively seeks institutional partners involved in accreditation. Learn more at http://jc-hem.org/ or contact Kimberly Schmit at kimberly.schmit@jc-hem.org.


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