Cuba's free education system benefits refugees

News Stories, 20 April 2006


HAVANA, Cuba, April 20 (UNHCR) Marie Rose has not wasted her time. The 34-year-old slightly built Burundian has a scroll full of diplomas which she shows with a shy but proud smile. They certify she has acquired an array of skills during her time in Cuba. Marie Rose, Cuba's only Burundian refugee, has successfully completed courses in Spanish, Italian, computer studies, massage, negotiation and secretarial skills amongst others.

"Given the many options in Cuba where education is free for everybody, it would be a pity not to use this unique opportunity," says Marie Rose. Making the most of her time in Cuba, Marie Rose is already planning to take her next course at Havana University.

Cuba, which has survived decades of US sanctions as well as the collapse of the Soviet bloc which used to subsidise it heavily, has experienced a downturn in its economic fortunes. But despite this, Cuba has maintained its reputation for providing good free health care and education to which the some 700 refugees on the island also have access.

Marie Rose arrived in Cuba in April 2004. A Tutsi, she had fled Burundi where her sister and her sister's family had been killed by Hutu rebels. She arrived on the island alone, having left her husband and their children behind. The family did not have enough money to pay for them all to flee, and even though her husband had had a leg amputated as a result of severe beatings, they felt that Marie Rose was the one most in danger.

Refugees are not allowed to work in Cuba and many are dependent on a minimal allowance from UNHCR to help them survive. Those living in urban areas are lodged in private houses, where they have their own bedroom and access to a bathroom and kitchen. But, UNHCR's budget to pay for the upkeep of refugees like Marie Rose is continually being reduced because of funding constraints. Resourceful refugees, like Cuban nationals, try to find ways to benefit from subsidised products.

"Cuba is a country with very warm, helpful and generous people and although much time is spent looking for cheap food in the market, I am grateful," says Marie Rose, looking appreciatively around her flat full of lovingly cared-for plants.

Also having crossed the world, Ramin arrived in Cuba in 2000 at the age of 14, having fled with his family from the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

"I was almost illiterate when I first came to Cuba, but I got the chance to graduate from technical high school. I also learned to speak English and Spanish," said Ramin, now resettled in Finland.

All of the 697 refugees in Cuba are what is called "mandate refugees" which means UNHCR has given them refugee status as the government which has not signed the refugee Convention, has no mechanism to recognise refugees. Mandate refugee status gives refugees temporary asylum in Cuba, while UNHCR, which operates there with a minimal staff, works to find countries which will accept them on a permanent basis.

After five years in Cuba, Ramin and his family last year left for Finland. This has taken some getting used to.

"It's like you were living inside an oven, and all of a sudden you move to a fridge," says Ramin. But it was not just the shock of the climate. "Cuba and Finland are totally different. Here, people are very quiet; you can hardly tell if someone is around. They are also very shy and they don't make friends easily, but they are really nice and honest people."

By the time Ramin left Cuba, he was studying dentistry at Havana University. Now his ambitions have changed and he has applied to study international law.

"I hope I will pass the exam. I would really like to work in an organisation like UNHCR, so that I could help thousands of people in need."

Marie Rose is still in Cuba waiting to be resettled. "I want to reunite with my husband and our three children," she says, her smiling face concealing the horrors she has been through before managing to flee. Marie Rose who suffered threats and physical attacks is now looking forward to beginning again. "And we will have a better life. I hope I can use everything I learned in Cuba," she says in perfect Spanish.

By Marion Hoffmann and Mariana Echandi in Cuba and Mexico City




UNHCR country pages


Education is vital in restoring hope and dignity to young people driven from their homes.

DAFI Scholarships

The German-funded Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative provides scholarships for refugees to study in higher education institutes in many countries.

Chad: Education in Exile

UNHCR joins forces with the Ministry of Education and NGO partners to improve education for Sudanese refugees in Chad.

The ongoing violence in Sudan's western Darfur region has uprooted two million Sudanese inside the country and driven some 230,000 more over the border into 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Although enrolment in the camp schools in Chad is high, attendance is inconsistent. A shortage of qualified teachers and lack of school supplies and furniture make it difficult to keep schools running. In addition, many children are overwhelmed by household chores, while others leave school to work for local Chadian families. Girls' attendance is less regular, especially after marriage, which usually occurs by the age of 12 or 13. For boys and young men, attending school decreases the possibility of recruitment by various armed groups operating in the area.

UNHCR and its partners continue to provide training and salaries for teachers in all 12 refugee camps, ensuring a quality education for refugee children. NGO partners maintain schools and supply uniforms to needy students. And UNICEF is providing books, note pads and stationary. In August 2007 UNHCR, UNICEF and Chad's Ministry of Education joined forces to access and improve the state of education for Sudanese uprooted by conflict in Darfur.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Chad: Education in Exile

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to ServePlay video

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to Serve

War forced Lim Bol Thong to flee South Sudan, putting his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. As a refugee in the Kule camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, he has found another way to serve. Just 21 years old, Lim started teaching chemistry at the school's primary school and last year was promoted to Vice Principal.
South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety Play video

South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety

Years of fighting between Sudan and rebel forces have sent more than 240,000 people fleeing to neighbouring South Sudan, a country embroiled in its own conflict. After weeks on foot, Amal Bakith and her five children are settling in at Ajoung Thok refugee camp where they receive food, shelter, access to education and land.
From refugee 'Lost Boy' to state education ministerPlay video

From refugee 'Lost Boy' to state education minister

The subject of the best-selling book What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng's journey has taken him from Sudanese 'Lost Boy' to education minister in his home state in South Sudan. He talks here about the causes of displacement, the risks of politicizing refugee resettlement, and the opportunities that come with staying positive.