The Irish teacher helping to close the gap in refugee education

Millions of refugee children and youth are missing out on a fundamental human right: the right to a quality education.  Ita Sheehy is working to change that

For 10 years Ita Sheehy was the Head of Education at UNHCR. Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, when not in the office or in the field she lived in Union Hall, a small fishing village in West Cork.

UNHCR’s Education team is responsible for education policy and strategy for refugees globally, incorporating all levels of education from primary to third level and education. Much changed in the 10 years that Ita worked for UNHCR. She talked to us just prior to leaving her post about going from Primary school teaching to working to make sure all refugee children go to school.


Ita Sheehy, UNHCR Senior Education Advisor, delivers a keynote address during the panel discussion on "Supporting Systems" at the 2017 Mobile Learning Week taking place at UNESCO headquarters in Paris.  © © UNHCR/Antoine Tardy


Could you start by telling us a little bit about your background before working for UNHCR?

I originally trained as a primary school teacher in St. Pat’s in Drumcondra. After that I went to Bangladesh for two years with Concern when I was 22 - working overseas had always been a big goal of mine. I then returned to Ireland and became involved in education and developing educational programmes for teachers and following that, I worked developing teaching plans with the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace and then an agency combatting poverty. I gradually went overseas again, spanning all the continents essentially. I went to Chad and then Bolivia, then to Haiti for five years, then spent four years in Madagascar and then three years in Sri Lanka, working with NGOs and UNICEF all the while.

How did you come to work with UNHCR and was there anything in particular that drew you to the Agency?

I had been in Sri Lanka from 2006 to 2009 during the war there. Whilst in Sri Lanka we were working with a lot of people from the Tamil community who had been internally displaced, forced to flee their homes, and I became interested then in working in that area. Sri Lanka was a very bloody war and we were supporting the education for children who were on the move and so we would project where people were moving to as the army was coming after them so that when the children got there they could immediately pick-up school and have some sort of normalcy despite the disruption in their lives.

It was in Sri Lanka that I realised how important it was to keep education going for refugee and displaced children.

Then the post came up within UNHCR to run their global education programmes and so I applied and got the job. I have been in that position for almost 10 years now.

How would you describe your role with UNHCR?

My role requires working on UNHCR’s global policy and strategy for education, working a lot with financing organizations to bring in funding for education for refugees, doing a lot of advocacy with international organizations with global education movements, so that they bring refugees into their radar for education planning, programming and financing. I also do a lot of work around developing UNHCR’s capacity to manage education programmes to identify what the needs are and to bring other partners onboard for support.


Burundi refugee children at Furaha Primary School in Nduta Refugee Camp in western Tanzania, study in a makeshift classroom under the trees.   © UNHCR/Georgina Goodwin


How has your role changed since starting 10 years ago?

When I started with UNHCR, it became clear that we needed to review refugee education globally. We found that not enough children were in school and that a lot of them were in separate classrooms and separate systems to children from the host country. They had not been incorporated into the education system in the country in which they were refugees. So, I worked on a very clear policy of refugee inclusion in national education systems and developed a strategy which was promoted and disseminated globally with organizations, and at a national and regional level with countries. It is the only really sustainable way of approaching education for refugee children, so that they then come out of education in the host country with certificates that enable them to move on in another system if they went back home or if they went to another country.

Also, when I started in 2010, there were just three people in Education headquarters and just a few officers in the field, now there are 28 officers in headquarters and in the field, there are now well over 40 education officers working in different countries. This upscale reflects the increased importance that UNHCR is placing on education.

Since I joined UNHCR 10 years ago there are many millions more refugees now than there were then. But when people refer to the “refugee crisis”: the refugee situation has always been a crisis. Certainly in 2015 there was an increased influx into Europe, but it didn’t affect what was happening in the rest of the globe where the majority of refugees live.

What is your favourite aspect of your job? And your least favourite, if any.

I really like that UNHCR is an agency that works with individual people. Every single refugee is a person with a name. I really like that personal contact. I also really like the fact that in this position there’s a real opportunity to influence policy and to make a distinct impact on the lives of children and the education they receive.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the field meeting with refugees, talking about their situation, what they want, what’s best to support their needs and listening continuously to the harrowing stories of the trauma and disruption, and the loss they have suffered. This can be very distressing, but it is essential work. You’re not going to be a very effective worker if you spend your time distanced from the people with whom you’re working, so I think that constant contact is very important.

Have you devised a way to deal with hearing such harrowing stories?

I think within UNHCR there is a very good support system. I have a very strong team, and everyone is dealing with the same thing. So, we have all developed ways of working through it.

Another thing that makes it easier is working with refugees who have managed to get into higher education and talking to these young people, they really are inspirational. UNHCR is supporting many thousands every year with scholarships and distance learning opportunities. Despite the hardships they’ve gone through they still have hope, they still invest in their communities, they still have aims and objectives and aspirations for the future, and that’s very inspiring.

How can technology be used as a tool to support refugees and their education?

I think ‘tool’ is definitely the right word for technology as it is not an engine itself. A lot of people seem to think that we can bring in a lot of tech and it will transform everything. Tech can be used as a tool to help within an education system or an education environment. That being said, UNHCR is using it quite a bit with regards to education. UNHCR is working with private partners who are helping to support some African countries to have educational material available in schools. So, it’s not a separate education system, rather it allows access to educational material that otherwise might not be accessible.

Technology is also being used on a wider scale in higher education. UNHCR established a consortium of education partners, universities and other organizations to support distance learning for third-level education. There are now 8,000 students annually who are following certified university programmes online, whereby they come together and complete online programmes with the help of a facilitator and receive a certification from an accredited University. Through this method, third level education can reach places where there is no access to a university campus.

Why, in your view, is Ireland’s support to UNHCR so important?

Ireland is a country that has always given very generously per capita, and that hasn’t changed in recent years. In fact, it has increased. The Irish Government has shown this through its commitment to the Global Refugee Forum, but also in support for education, Ireland’s support for Global Partnership in Education and increased funding were all very welcome. UNHCR has been quite heartened by the increased commitment of the Irish government to UNHCR but particularly to refugee education.

Lastly, do you feel optimistic about the future of education for refugees?

Yes, I do. There’s been a big increase in understanding globally in the importance of including refugees within the systems in the hosting countries. Of the numbers of refugees who have been resettled, most of them are going to stay in these countries rather than returning home. Countries now seem to understand this, realizing that these people will continue to be part of the fabric of the country.  They are therefore placing greater investment in ensuring that these people are educated and can contribute to society and their new homes.