Making Education Count

Finding Possibilities of Peace in the Unlikeliest of Places

Image of refugee girl from DRC

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE), has spent years investigating the dimensions of education in conflict settings. During her time at GSE, her mission has proved ever more important as conflicts intensifying in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Somalia both demand immediate action and provide new opportunities for exploration.

Meet Aya1, a smiling eight-year-old Syrian girl who has dreams of one day attending medical school. “I want to be a doctor, so I can help children,” says Aya. “If they come to see me and they don’t have money, I will [still] give them medicine…so they can get better.”

Aya will have to overcome great odds to achieve her goals for the future, because, as a Syrian refugee living in a makeshift tent in Lebanon, she has not been to school for over two years. “Aya is the only one [in the family] who has not been educated,” says her father. Aya—as one of the 5.5 million Syrian children in direct need of assistance2—in many ways, represents an entire generation whose lives have been put on hold.

In Syria and neighboring host countries, at a time when children are most in need of the support and development that comes from quality education, schools are being destroyed faster than they can be put up, access remains limited and dangerous, and already traumatized children are dropping out due to bullying and harassment. 

And yet, according to Sarah Dryden-Peterson, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, education is often buried under a lot of the other immediate needs such as food, water, health, and shelter. “Education is not perceived as a life-saving intervention and is hard to fund in humanitarian situations, with less than 2 percent of humanitarian aid allocated to education,” says Dryden-Peterson. “Yet refugees prioritize education in every conflict setting in which I have worked. Education of one’s children provides hope for the future. And while that hope may not be life-saving, it is life-sustaining, providing a critical bridge to imagining a way out of situations of despair.”

Dryden-Peterson has spent years uncovering barriers to achieving education, evaluating the intersection of global policy with local experiences and capacities, and pointing out the important relationship between education and a sustainable post-conflict future. Her work is dedicated to demonstrating how and why quality education in the midst of conflict is essential to preparing children to live, work, and be constructive citizens. Whether consulting with humanitarian relief organizations or teaching at GSE, Dryden-Peterson is helping to make education count.

From the UN to the Classroom and Back

In 2011, Dryden-Peterson was commissioned by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to lead a global review on refugee education.3 Her report highlighted major gaps in how the United Nations was prioritizing short-term protection-based approaches at the expense of long-term development strategies that are necessary to build quality education in conflict settings.

The recommendations of this review—increased focus on refugee integration in national schools when possible/suitable, investment in teachers, and conflict-sensitive programming—formed the basis of a new education strategy for UNHCR which Dryden-Peterson helped to draft. Refugee education has been newly prioritized as a result. Before the UNHCR Global Education Strategy was launched in 2012 there were six UNHCR staff members working on education—three at the headquarters in Geneva and three in field-based positions. Less than three years later, there are forty-four dedicated education officers—fifteen on the global team, working at headquarters and regionally, and twenty-nine in field-based positions. There has also been a significant increase in long-term contractual staff for education, particularly in emergency contexts.

In addition to her engagement with international actors, every spring Dryden-Peterson provides an opportunity for about fifty graduate students enrolled in her Education in Armed Conflict course to evaluate and inform the framework’s multi-year and multi-country roll out as part of the final class project. Working together in groups and with Teaching Fellows Elizabeth Adelman, Michelle Bellino, and Vidur Chopra, students gain hands-on experience reviewing internal UNHCR mission reports and interviewing dozens of UNHCR staff and their government and NGO partners in Bangladesh, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, and Yemen.

“This is a unique opportunity for students to engage directly with professionals working in the field of education and emergencies—a chance to actually support the process of improving UNHCR’s approach to education provision,” says Adelman. “Students are not simply writing research papers in this class…this course is one of the few where we see the real nexus between policy, practice, and academia.” Thus, students are able to “connect the dots” between global policy, national contexts, and local classroom settings while UNHCR receives deeply informative feedback and innovative recommendations in the form of end-of-semester reports.

How Daily Experiences Inform Global Policy

Children at school in Nakivale refugee settlement, UgandaOutside Harvard, Geneva, or Washington, DC, you are likely to find Dryden-Peterson in places like Uganda, Kenya, and Botswana, working closely with refugee families or observing local community centers and schools. Her deep, long-term engagement in conflict settings allows her to capture context-specific challenges and unpack the complex, multi-directional relationship between education and armed conflict.

In one well-known multi-year study,4 she illuminates the daily realities that refugees in Uganda face in constructing and achieving their future livelihoods through education.

For example, the differences between Julie, a second-generation Rwandan refugee in a camp and Amaziah, a non-camp, urban refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo are important for educational programming and yet often difficult to see without careful narrative portraits. By pointing out barriers to education—such as funding, integration, poverty, type of residence (urban or rural), gender, disability, ethnicity, and language—Dryden-Peterson thus shines a light on priority areas for policy makers.5

But her work also reveals how local communities address these barriers in their daily lives.

In one of Dryden-Peterson’s newest projects, funded by a Weatherhead Center medium grant, she and doctoral student Elizabeth Adelman and former student Negin Dayha investigate pathways to success in one of the most unlikely places on earth—the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya. It houses 450,000 multigenerational Somali refugees and is a place where only 7.4 percent of young people complete secondary school.

Makeshift Classroom in Kyaka II refugee settlement, UgandaAlthough Dadaab seems like an improbable candidate for success stories, Dryden-Peterson finds that “students seek out the kinds of supports that enable their educational success,” she says in an interview, “including from teachers, peers, family members, and from online connections all over the world, particularly through email and Facebook.” Students’ success, despite enormous odds, informs education policy makers about the ways in which local communities can overcome overcrowded and underfunded classrooms, overburdened teachers, and the limits of the local economy.

This connectivity brings hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees living in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada—large diasporas with access to financial and technological resources—within grasp of the resource-and-hope-strapped refugees in Dadaab. In another project, Dryden-Peterson is finding that diasporas help enable education in conflict settings—including Afghanistan, South Sudan, Haiti, and Zimbabwe—not only at this individual level but also in building education systems.

Conflict and Education; Education and Conflict

The relationship between conflict and education is dynamic. As Dryden-Peterson explains in a forthcoming book chapter on “Policies for Education in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction,” conflict disrupts teacher education systems, destroys physical infrastructure, and promotes a culture of violence that impacts classroom pedagogy, contributing to poor quality of teaching and learning.6 On the other hand, as Dryden-Peterson, Adelman, Chopra, and doctoral student Bethany Mulimbi point out, education also influences governance by enabling an informed citizenry, a sense of unified national inclusiveness, and economic equality, all of which can reduce political instability and cyclical violence.7

Such an “upstream” approach to perhaps preventing conflict in the first place through education drives a new investigation into “anti-conflict” cases. Dryden-Peterson and Mulimbi are investigating the role that formal education plays in building a sense of national belonging in Botswana, a country that has remained politically and economically stable despite many preconditions identified as possible causes of conflict.

Funded by a Harvard Academy junior faculty development grant, Dryden-Peterson and her colleagues dug through decades of national policy documents, school syllabi, and social studies textbooks to show the challenges of negotiating a balance between ethnic diversity while promoting a sense of national unity.

What now? The Syrian Tragedy

Dryden-Peterson is currently planning a long-term study in Lebanon, which will be crucial for informing current humanitarian response efforts in the region. She will be investigating how young people, just like Aya, are protected physically and psychosocially through different models of education, and how they learn skills and develop civic attitudes and future aspirations.

In many ways it will be her biggest challenge yet, as the crisis in Syria exemplifies—in no small order of magnitude—many of the barriers to education she has found in other settings. The Syrian crisis is exacerbating an already existing problem of unsustainable urbanization in the region—the population of Lebanon, where as many as 1.5 million Syrian refugees are seeking refuge since March of 2011, has increased by 30 percent.

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees reside in urban settings and other non-camp rural areas where access to quality resources remains low and challenges to personal safety, like gender based violence and criminal activities, are high.8 Furthermore, because refugees rely upon existing services available in the host community, they are contributing to already existing pressures on public education, public health, housing, and employment systems.9 For Syrians who make it into the classroom, for example, they face a shortened curriculum, stressed teachers, language barriers, overcrowded classrooms, and insufficient resources. In this way, understanding how to solve the Syrian refugee crisis requires focusing on the Lebanese people as well.

Dryden-Peterson’s work will provide a lens to comparatively examine the provision and role of education to both refugee and host country children, between boys and girls, and in formal and informal settings. Such an investigation will help to inform the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, an interagency framework led by both UNHCR and the UN Development Program (UNDP), which, for the first time, formally links immediate humanitarian response intimately with longer-term enabling development approaches for which education will be a key strategic priority.

Perhaps Aya will have a shot after all.

Joseph GuayCommunications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.


  1. ”The Challenge of Education,” Future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
  2. Futures Under Threat, (Save the Children, September 2014).
  3. Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Refugee Education: a Global Review (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2011).
  4. Sarah Dryden-Peterson, “Refugee Children Aspiring Toward the Future: Linking Education and Livelihoods,” in Educating Children in Conflict Zones, eds. Karen Mundy and Sarah Dryden-Peterson (Teachers College, Columbia University, 2011), 85–100.
  5. Sarah Dryden-Peterson, “Conflict, Education and Displacement,” Conflict and Education 1:1 (2011): 1–5; Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Barriers to Accessing Primary Education in Conflict-Affected Fragile States: Final Report (Save the Children, 2009); and “Overcoming the Barriers the to Education,” in The Future is Now: Education for Children in Countries Affected by Conflict (Save the Children, 2010): 5–16.
  6. Dryden-Peterson, Sarah. “Policies for Education in Conflict and Post-conflict Reconstruction,” in Handbook of Global Policy-Making in Education, eds. Karen Mundy, Andy Green, Robert Lingard, Antoni Verger (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, Forthcoming).
  7. Dryden-Peterson, Sarah, Elizabeth Adelman, Vidur Chopra, and Bethany Mulimbi, “Exploring Links among Universal Education and Good Governance,” Education and Development Blog, Brookings Institution. (June 25, 2014),
  8. Ronak B. Patel and Frederick M. Burkle Jr., “Rapid Urbanization and the Growing Threat of Violence and Conflict: A 21st Century Crisis,Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 27, no. 2 (April 2012): 194–197; and Tim Midgley, Johan Eldebo, Amir Amarani and Nadene Robertson, Under Pressure: The Impact of the Syrian Refugee Crisis on Host Communities in Lebanon (World Vision, July 2013).
  9. Humanitarian Response to Urban Crises: Workshop Report (Department for International Development, UK (DFID), August 29, 2014); and Policy Brief: Engaging Municipalities in the Response to the Syria Refugee Crisis in Lebanon (Mercy Corps, March 2014).


Top to bottom:

  • A refugee girl from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) learns in a community-based school in Kampala, Uganda. Photo credit: Sarah Dryden-Peterson
  • Children line up to enter school in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo credit: Sarah Dryden-Peterson
  • Makeshift classroom after an influx of refugees from DRC, in Kyaka II refugee settlement in Uganda.

Image of Sarah Dryden-PetersonSarah Dryden-Peterson is a Faculty Associate and former graduate student associate of the Weatherhead Center and an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research interests include: Comparative education; community development; education in armed conflict, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa; migration; and transnationalism.