When Kabul fell to the Taliban, Ahmad Rostami knew it would be dangerous to keep traces of his master's degree in economics at the American University of Afghanistan or his background in US-related projects. Before smashing the external hard drive with a hammer and burying some physical documents, he uploaded copies of key documents to Article 26 Backpack, a website designed to help refugees keep their school records.
When people are forced to leave their homes and come to a new country, their attempts to pursue higher education and careers are often thwarted. For example, it may be difficult or impossible to prepare previous academic work relevant to the next step. There are several programs that help maintain, verify, or resend credentials, but problems persist.
According to Erika Kalachaniava, a researcher at the University of Greenwich and a linguist who focuses on the integration of students from refugee backgrounds, the management of refugee qualifications became a major issue during the wave of migration around 2014, which included many higher education institutions. . But few of these refugees have certified copies of their degrees and transcripts, and they cannot have their credentials assessed, a process that compares a person's previous degree to a grade in another country. .
"Being more flexible in recognizing people's previous qualifications is something that takes effort and imagination and looking at what has been done and what has worked well in other countries," Kolachaneva said. So, although there are many barriers to education and professional success abroad, such as language and the cost of higher education, it is relatively easy to manage the missing documents.
"I think it's really overwhelming," Kolachaneva said.
Amid Syria's civil war, Keith Wattenpaw, a human rights professor at UC Davis, heard from young people in Jordanian refugee camps who risked their lives to return to Syria to get records notes and important documents to continue their studies.
This led Watenpaugh to create the 26-Article Backpack, an advocacy platform organized by UC Davis named after the article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that proclaims the right to education.
Students and professionals can upload transcripts, diplomas, professional resumes, and videos that tell their stories, then share these documents with admissions officers and future employers.
In addition to protecting users' credentials, the Rule 26 backpack helps ensure that people have access to their documents, which Watenpaugh says are often restricted by authoritarian governments.
“The human right to own, store and determine how information about oneself is shared with others is a human right that Backpacks helps define and support,” Watenpo said.
Since the organization launched in 2018, more than 3,500 people have used the Article 26 backpack, which is now available in seven languages. According to the survey, 35% of backpackers use the platform to apply for scholarships, 30% to apply for college and 20% to apply for jobs.
In 2012, Eslam Abo Al-Hawa fled the Syrian civil war to Lebanon. Relatives in Syria took Abo Al-Hawa's documents, which helped him to continue his studies. He enrolled as a student at the American University of Beirut and then started working with Artikl 26 Backpack, helping other refugees enroll. He said a community has grown around the backpack that helps people advance in their careers.
Abo Al Hawa now holds a master's degree in business analysis and has updated his resume with a certificate obtained through extracurricular activities. Although the backpack isn't as widely accepted by college admissions officers today as some users had hoped, he says it's still useful.
"Sometimes you only need it once in your life, maybe when you're applying for college or for something really important," says Abo Al Hawa. "But it was worth it at the time, because it saved your life."
For Rostami, it is comforting to know that the digital copies of her documents are safe as her family attempts to leave Afghanistan. According to him, he was told that even having a phone number in the United States is not safe.
"It was a big hope for me because I said, 'OK, I can keep my documents here,'" Rostami said.
When the Rostami family finally left Afghanistan, they managed to take several physical copies of the document with them which were not destroyed. Although a Canadian expert has verified documents and credentials, he faces obstacles in finding meaningful employment in Portugal, where he currently resides. Officials told him that to use his bachelor's and master's degrees on the job search platform, he needed original documents verified by the Afghan embassy, which was impossible. He now had an entry-level job, but without his credentials it would have been difficult to find a more specialized position.
Although Rostami was unable to use the documents he keeps in his Article 26 backpack in Portugal, he thinks it would be useful to have a digital backup of the notes in case his credentials are verified. in another country.
Organizations recognized by Watenpaugh here and around the world may not accept digital copies of documents submitted by users on the platforms, as many of these organizations place great importance on the authenticity of credentials. Watenpaugh said the backpack could be part of a larger conversation about how practices like credentials can become "barriers to forms of social mobility." However, documents stored in the Backpack can help users move on to next steps, such as credential assessment.
“They often see themselves as gatekeepers rather than door openers,” says Wattenpo.
In addition to allowing users to control their documents and stories, Article 26's backpack aims to help users open doors in other ways. This project helps connect backpackers with diploma and language exam vouchers, spreading the word about opportunities through newsletters.
Mujtaba Juya, an Afghan student who was evacuated to Suleimani American University in Iraq, received an English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) test voucher via an Article 26 backpack. The exam fee of 230 $ will be hard to come by with its limited limit. salary, but it is very important because he is applying to continue his studies in Europe or the USA.
Juya does not use the Article 26 backpack to store documents, but uses a Google account to do so. However, he says the project is important because it exposes students to opportunities.
"If you don't have that medium that people are connected to, there's no way to help," he said.
While the Article 26 backpack is used to store copies of documents and identifying information, other initiatives allow displaced people to check their backgrounds and transfer them to a new country.
Launched in 2017, the European Qualifications Passport assesses evidence of refugees' previous education and work experience, conducts interviews, and then issues a document summarizing their experience and skills to schools and potential employers.
Kalachanyeva says the initiative has many benefits, including, in theory, allowing people who pass the assessment in one European country to seek opportunities in other participating countries. However, passports are not official admission, so it is up to the university to accept passports only or request additional documents.
A similar service is available from North American credential assessors. In 2016, World Education Services (WES), a credential assessment organization, launched a pilot program to help Syrians who needed enough documents to pass traditional assessments coming to Canada, according to Bryce Lu, Deputy Purchasing Manager at WES. The Gateway program is now available in the United States and Canada for people from seven countries. About 4,085 people received a referral that could help them obtain higher education, professional licenses and employment.
The trick, however, is that organizations and employers decide whether or not to accept skills assessments, Lu says. said Lu, but requires collaboration.
"It's kind of an ecosystem of institutions, organizations and governments that really need to come together to solve this problem."