Akelius Foundation and UNICEF make sure no child misses out on education during the pandemic

Akelius platform supports the education of refugee and migrant children in Serbia

Ivana Miljkovic
08 March 2022

Vranje, Serbia, 19 March 2021 - “I want to live in Finland and be a doctor or dentist. I think school is very important, not just for me, but for everyone,” twelve-year-old Roma tells us confidently. She speaks five languages, paints, has the best grades in school. She is sociable, open, has a sense of humour. But no child should experience the things this girl has in the last five years. She fled Iraq with her mother, father and two younger brothers. She lived in refugee and migrant camps in Turkey, Greece, Bosnia, and Herzegovina.

“First I went to school in Iraq for a year, then for three years in Greece, and then another year in Bosnia,” explains Roma.

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UNICEF Srbija / 2021 / Živojinović

She has been in Serbia, at the Reception Centre in Vranje, for five months now. Roma is enrolled in school, but due to the pandemic, she is now attending it remotely – online. Twice a week, she attends math and biology classes according to a programme tailored to her needs.

Roma, her eight-year-old brother Ravil, and sixteen other school children at the Reception Centre in Vranje are included in the “Akelius platform – support to the education of refugee and migrant children in Serbia – response to the COVID-19 emergency through online learning”, a project launched in June 2020 as a UNICEF and Akelius Foundation joint initiative. The initiative is part of the global endeavour of UNICEF Sweden and the Akelius Foundation to support UNICEF Education in Emergencies (EiE) programmes.

The UNICEF-Akelius partnership began with the co-creation of a digital course with local implementing educators in Greece in 2017, and subsequently expanded to Lebanon, Mauritania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia.

In Serbia, the project is being implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development and the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration and aims to close the digital divide and ensure continuity in the learning of refugee and migrant children, during and after the COVID-19 epidemic. In order to do this, through the UNICEF-Akelius joint initiative, two programmes are being implemented as part of the project: Learning Support Program and English Language Courses. Through the Learning Support Programmed children enrolled in Serbian schools received tutoring that helped them formal education. A team of 19 teachers from local schools provide children in three reception centres with continuous online learning support so they can follow the national educational curricula.

UNICEF Srbija / 2022

Two cycles of ten-week online English language courses are also being organized. Twenty-three student-volunteers from the Faculty of Philosophy from the Nis University are teaching the courses, which are now part of the students’ course work.

UNICEF has provided high-quality internet and 112 tablets for children to use during educational activities, which also strengthens their digital competencies.  In total, 187 girls and boys were provided with the opportunity to gain online learning and tutoring support. This in turn is helping children continue with their formal education and learn English.

“English language courses are held by final-year students from the English language department of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Nis, and the learning support is provided by teachers-mentors from local mainstream schools attended by the children,” explains Ivana Milanovic, Serbian Commissariat for Refugee and Migration Local Coordinator for the education of children and youth on the Akelius project, who has been working with children at the Centre in Vranje, in southern Serbia, for 4 years now.

So far, 280 children participated in both programmes, out of which 113 children have completed the English language course, and 167 girls and boys in three Centres for the Accommodation of Refugees and Migrants in Belgrade, Vranje and Sid have received online support for regular attendance of formal education. Teachers, parents, and children are noticing the progress in learning and competencies. The children are satisfied with the classes and teachers and are motivated to join both the English language courses and online sessions for additional support to learning.

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UNICEF Srbija / 2021 / Živojinović

Roma, already a polyglot, explains how much the support meant to her: “My English wasn't good, but here when I go to online school it is better than before.”

Roma’s parents also know how crucial education is for the future of their children.

“It’s very important for children to go to school, to learn everything, learn the language. I will support them in whatever they decide to do in life,” says Razah.

An NGO from Nis also provides support for online learning to children in the Centre in Vranje, within the Akelius project.

“One of our tasks is to review all the materials that children are working on in their classes, and then to go over them again within our non-formal education activities. Many children don’t know any language other than their mother tongue, so psychological support is very important at this point, both for them and their parents,” explains Gordana Radojkovic from Indigo who supported the realization of classes in refugee and migrant centres.

At psychological workshops, there are often discussions about how education brings economic, social, and health-related benefits, and that it’s the most important tool for fighting discrimination.

“What we always emphasize in our work with children and parents is that the right to education is their right. It’s the right of every child in the world. The things they learn here will be of practical use for them wherever they go,” explains Gordana.

Roma already knows that the right to education is her right too and that no one should deny it to her. That’s why she can’t wait to learn Finnish, in addition to Arabic, Farsi, Serbian, Greek and English, and become one of the best dentists or doctors.

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UNICEF Srbija / 2021 / Živojinović

Although the joint UNICEF-Akelius Foundation project provided significant support to refugee and migrant children to grow and develop their competencies, this initiative equally helped future English teachers to gain work experience. For student-volunteers this project was a unique opportunity to work with children and cooperate with an international organization.

The students agree that this experience led to a significant improvement of their teaching competences, while their motivation for teaching has increased.

Although highly experienced, teacher-tutors also benefitted from this project – they improved their intercultural competencies and competencies needed for online teaching.

The Akelius Digital Language Initiative used during classes was a useful, attractive, fun, and stimulating tool for learning. By using Akelius, children broadened their English language vocabulary, learned basic grammar, and improved their pronunciation.

Since the start of the refugee and migrant crisis, UNICEF has been providing various types of education support to refugee and migrant children through activities and forms of non-formal learning. Through the support provided to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, school administrations and local institutions and partners, UNICEF is contributing to the inclusion of refugee and migrant children in mainstream education immediately upon their arrival to the Republic of Serbia, and promoting regular school attendance, especially for girls and unaccompanied children.