In a Berlin Partnership, Duke Students Boost Online Education for Refugees

October 17, 2018

While studying in Germany, students worked at a nonprofit that creates learning opportunities for refugees seeking higher education.

Duke students work at the headquarters of Kiron Open Higher Education, a nonprofit that supports online learning for refugees. Credit: Erdağ Göknar / Duke University

- Text by Amanda Solliday and video by Catherine Angst

During this past summer’s Duke Middle East in Europe program, nine Duke students spent their mornings in classrooms learning about migration, geopolitics and identity. In the afternoons, the group traveled by train across Berlin to help develop digital classes for fellow students with one notable difference – the online learners are refugees. 

Berlin is the home to Kiron Open Higher Education, a nonprofit founded to support displaced people who wish to access higher education and take university-level coursework. As interns at Kiron, the students contributed to the academic programs, worked in donor relations and pitched in with other day-to-day work.

“Through Kiron, the students learned about the nonprofit world, online education and social entrepreneurship,” says Banu Gökariksel, an associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who co-directed the program.

“This experience also encouraged our students to understand what it means to be 20 years old, fleeing a war without any papers or diplomas and to think about how you would create a life for yourself,” Gökariksel adds.

Many refugees fleeing the war in Syria have found their way to Germany, and the capital is a hub for asylum seekers arriving from countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

In 2015 – the year Kiron was founded – Germany began its open border migration policy and began increasing the number of refugees allowed into the country. That year, nearly 900,000 refugees arrived in Germany and almost half a million people applied for asylum, according to the 2015 Migration Report published by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

While in Berlin, the students lived in the Kreuzberg district of the city. The neighborhood is known for its mix of immigrants and politically active groups, particularly those that support immigration. (See the story map of Kreuzberg created by the Duke Middle East in Europe students and faculty.)

“That made the program even more interesting for us – in a Europe that’s increasingly building its borders, Berlin continues to provide support for refugees,” Gökariksel says.

The six-week Duke Global Education Office program included the Kiron internship, as well as two classes, Gökariksel’s course, “Transnational Muslims in Germany,” and “Geopolitics and Culture between Europe and the Middle East” taught by Erdağ Göknar, associate professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and co-director of the Duke Middle East in Europe program.

“This hybrid program is innovative – it’s the first program of its kind at Duke,” Göknar says. “It brings together both an understanding of the intellectual frameworks of migration and immigration and real-world experience through civic engagement.”

‘An Ecosystem of Support’

More than 3,500 students have taken courses with Kiron, and roughly 40 percent of the students are Syrian refugees.

As the nonprofit was forming in 2015, employees began examining the obstacles that exist for refugees who want to continue university-level coursework. Kiron found, among other issues, that legal documentation was a challenge.

“We are bridging the gap for a student who might be sitting in a refugee camp waiting for his or her refugee status to be officially recognized,” says Sanja Sontor, head of donor relations at Kiron.

The organization offers courses in five tracks – business and economics, computer science, mechanical engineering, political science and social work. Once students fulfill formal requirements to apply to a university, Kiron offers guidance and support. If accepted to a brick-and-mortar university, students can get their Kiron studies recognized.

One of the Duke students, Sarah Kane, a sophomore studying public policy and history, says the Kiron internship made her realize how education was critical for many refugees wanting to access good jobs in their new host countries.

“Kiron is addressing a problem that people don’t really think about or talk about,” Kane says.

In addition to academic offerings, the nonprofit provides what Sontor calls “an ecosystem of support,” which includes counseling, a helpdesk for academic and other issues, an online forum and a mentoring program.

“There are many layers of complexities that we have to deal with because our students are dealing with them – for example, adapting to a host country’s language and culture or even being forced back to their home country,” Sontor says.

A Pilot for Global Education

The Duke Middle East in Europe class gathers in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, Germany. The students lived in the neighborhood for six weeks during the summer program. Credit: Banu Gökariksel / University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Matthew Rascoff, who leads Duke Learning Innovation, conceived of the partnership between Duke and Kiron after observing that hundreds of Kiron's refugee learners were enrolled in Duke's online courses on Coursera.

"It's gratifying to see the triple benefits for Kiron and its refugee learners, for our students and among colleagues at other institutions who seek to replicate this approach," he said. "Global education needs to be rethought. This hybrid of service learning and study abroad is a promising alternative to the prevailing model.”

While in Berlin, Claire Gibbs evaluated Kiron’s offerings of economics and business courses. The junior at Duke, majoring in public policy, also held virtual office hours where she chatted with Kiron’s students around the world.

“This internship and the Duke program overall gave me the opportunity to realize there’s so much more going on than just coursework in front of me,” Gibbs says.

This year’s program was a pilot. Based on its success, the organizers plan to repeat a similar format next summer.

Banu Gökariksel, Erdağ Göknar and Matthew Rascoff will present “Study Abroad as Service Learning: Supporting Refugee Learners in Berlin” on October 23 at 3:30 pm in Rubenstein Library Room 249, as part of Duke’s NextEd Festival.

Related article: Duke Students to Support Coursera for Refugee Learners in Berlin (Coursera)