As GEM creates opportunities for refugee and displaced students to access higher education, it’s always incredible to watch their resilience shine as they pursue their goals. However, providing access is not always enough. It also requires concerted effort to plan for and support students through the inevitable obstacles, emergencies and unexpected circumstances that arise during their journey of learning and their pathway to employment.
GEM learners overcome challenges tied to some of society’s biggest inequities in order to earn their degrees. These include, among others:
Gender violence and bias
While GEM can’t solve each and every challenge, it considers each case and evaluates the likelihood that an obstacle will prevent a student from earning their degree. This is done to determine if assistance can be provided. Special care is also given to ultra-vulnerable groups.
For this, GEM sets aside funds and runs a process to offer extra support for situations that may be the difference between a student completing a degree or facing a block that may have otherwise halted their studies. This system of support is known as GEM Cares.
As GEM has learned through its expansion to five countries, student needs and the nature of the challenges they face vary according to location, life situations and ever-changing political tides.
When the COVID-19 pandemic presented additional challenges to student lives and their studies, GEM listened to partners and students in order to repurpose funds to offer students the support needed to ensure both partners and students could thrive.
On the whole, in 2020, the spread of COVID-19 presented more challenges for GEM students living in urban areas compared to camps. This is likely due to the fact that students living in urban areas don’t have housing and food provisions. In contrast, students living in camps are often offered assistance in these matters, although certainly not always to an ideal standard to support success in university programs. Since refugees living in urban areas are already at the economic fringe of their cities, economic shutdowns put additional strains on basic survival needs such as housing and food.
The pandemic offered the GEM team a critical opportunity to ensure student needs and their successes are continuously analyzed and addressed within the GEM model. GEM continued its general support of emergency cases, and also worked closely with partners on repurposing the budget for much-needed general support, including internet access at home, counseling services and food.
GEM CARES FOR PARTNERS
In the context of COVID-19, GEM Cares also allowed GEM the opportunity to analyze the needs of partner staff and ensure their wellbeing in order to best care for students. To this end, GEM organized a mental health wellness retreat, which was completely virtual and run by a mental health organization based in Rwanda. Over a period of two months, clinical psychologists helped GEM and partner staff to support students during the pandemic. More than this, the sessions also ensured that they were able to support themselves and share challenges and best practices related to their wellbeing. Taking a holistic approach, these sessions also included yoga, meditation and the sharing of coping mechanisms.
Even in cases where GEM determines it cannot provide assistance to students – whether due to resource constraints or lack of expertise or authority – it works with its on-the-ground partner, UNHCR, and other advocacy organizations to determine how ecosystems that are already present within communities can be leveraged to offer additional support.