What Mandela Can Teach Us to Face Today’s Education Crisis

What Mandela Can Teach Us to Face Today’s Education Crisis

This blog was first published on the Education for All blog.

On September 24 at 11 a.m. EDT, please join the Luminos Fund for the launch event of “Education Leadership through Crisis,” a new video series where diverse education leaders share personal lessons on navigating crises. In this COVID-19 moment, these dialogues will shed light on the world’s opportunity to get education delivery right. www.luminosfund.org/leadership-series.

I wonder if you have had the privilege of watching or reading President Nelson Mandela’s stunning 2005 address at the Arctic concert in Tromsø, Norway. If not, I encourage you to stop and watch. To me, the Tromsø speech stands out for its uncanny relevance to our immediate times.

Madiba began by underscoring that our world remains sorely divided. Hope and despair are paradoxically juxtaposed, sitting as closely together as the two sides of a fifty cent coin. One side boasts leapfrog gains in science and technology. The other side laments far too many children dying unnecessarily for lack of medicine and that millions of children are still out of school.

With the July 2005 G8 meetings then in the foreground, Mandela reminded his audience that much of our common future depends on the actions and plans of world’s highest decision makers. “We now need leadership, vision, and political courage,” the former President expounded with the signature raspy gravitas of his indefatigable spirit.

Then, while casting a gentle, fatherly eye across the gathered crowd, Madiba raised a somber question concerning the AIDS pandemic:

“When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?”

Nelson Mandela

An education crisis of unseen proportions

Today, fifteen years later, in the midst of a global pandemic and catastrophic moment in education, we need not listen hard at all to hear the clear, steady echo of President Mandela’s words from Tromsø. As it did then, his clarion call should prick our consciences, rally our creativity, and mobilize our voices to make the right choices for all children whose learning has been turned upside down by COVID-19.

With over one billion children out of school, education leaders today are experiencing the challenge of a generation. And yet, the novel Coronavirus is not the first calamity to put learning at risk. For education ministers and leaders in disaster-prone regions, the ability to lead through crisis with agility is an active, ongoing skillset.

Powerful lessons can be drawn from recent history to inform today’s pathways to relief, recovery, and resilience in education delivery. And, even the best leadership is lost without funding, and that is where today’s funding leaders like the Global Partnership for Education are truly on the vanguard. The emergency COVID-19 response funding that GPE is making available is exactly the support education leaders need to push through the hard process of returning to school safely and, ultimately, building education back better.

A new video series to learn from proven leaders

What can we learn from education leaders and philanthropists who have not turned their backs in past crises and, instead, navigated successfully through the breach? These are precisely the topics and themes of a forthcoming video interview series, Education Leadership through Crisis, which I have the honor to host.

We launch on Thursday, September 24 with a live webinar that will explore leadership lessons that have emerged from Liberia and New Orleans’ contrasting education recovery journeys where, respectively, the Ebola crisis and Hurricane Katrina disrupted learning for millions of children. Neerav Kingsland, Managing Director, the City Fund and former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans; George Werner, former Minister of Education, Liberia; and Dr. Rebecca Winthrop, Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution will share their personal leadership lessons.

The series will continue in the following weeks, featuring discussions with esteemed global leaders from across government, the private sector and civil society, including luminaries such as Arne Duncan, former U.S. Education Secretary; Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, former Minister of Education in Zimbabwe; Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of African Leadership Group; and Erin Ganju, Managing Director of Echidna Giving.

Alice Albright wrote in March 2020, as COVID-19 cases spiked around the globe, that “The Global Partnership for Education was created out of a belief that in the face of great challenges, we are stronger together.”

As the COVID-19 crisis is testing the next generation of leaders across education and beyond, I am honored to amplify the voices of those who have triumphed in the face of past crises. Indeed, it is clear at this dark moment that we need to lean on each other’s wisdom if we are to have a fighting chance of providing quality education for all.

An Unprecedented Crisis: COVID-19’s Impact on Education and Vulnerable Children

An Unprecedented Crisis: COVID-19’s Impact on Education and Vulnerable Children

The Luminos Fund recently enjoyed the privilege of hosting a key education dialogue led by Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper. Susannah Hares is Senior Policy Fellow and Co-Director of the Global Education Program at Center for Global Development. Dr. Benjamin Piper is Senior Director of Africa Education at RTI International. 

Caitlin Baron, Luminos CEO, opened the discussion by reflecting on how dramatically the world has changed over the six months between February and July 2020. Education has been severely disrupted globally. At the early high point of the Coronavirus pandemic, over 1.6 billion children were out of school, according to UNESCO. School closures still affect over 1 billion children. As national governments and members of the international development community continue to wrestle with how to respond to secure learning opportunities for children and mitigate learning loss, we at Luminos wanted our board, funders, supporters, and friends to hear from two of the world’s foremost education researchers.  

A view of the Luminos Fund webinar featuring Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper.

The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Effect on Education

Susannah Hares began with a multifaceted bird’s eye view of how the pandemic has affected education across the globe. While schools are starting to open in parts of the world, Hares pointed out that the pandemic will cast a long shadow on education in at least the following ways:

  1. Finance: We will likely see a reduction in education finance due to deflated national economic growth projections that will squeeze education budgets. Economic experts expect contractions in middle-income countries and slowdowns in low-income countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and possibly continued stagnancy in global aid to education. In other words, there will be much less money available to support learning.
  2. Access: Important gains in education access over the last ten years may be rolled back significantly. Close to 7 million children could drop out of school, either long-term or permanently, due to household income shocks related to the pandemic. Notably, children from the lowest income households, girls, children with disabilities, and displaced and refugee children will likely suffer the brunt of the shocks.
  3. Ed Tech: While education technology will be harnessed to solve remote learning challenges, the sector has not yet lived up to its hype. As research and experimentation continue regarding the potent contribution teachers can play in boosting ed tech, many low-income households still lack access to internet, radio, and television. As a result, ed tech firms have low usage. For example, in Africa, just two ed tech firms have more than 1 million users.
  4. Inequality: Most obviously, school closures will exacerbate inequality. Many countries were slow to implement distance learning. In many instances, only wealthy families benefit from technology-driven distance learning initiatives. As a result, learning loss will be greater among children from low-income households. A number of countries are returning exam cohorts to school first, which presents unique challenges.
  5. Exam Culture: Many countries are returning their exam cohorts to school first (e.g., Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Ghana). But the practice of high stakes exams will likely further disadvantage certain children. Exams are used as filtering mechanisms as children transition from primary, to secondary, to tertiary education. Even at the best times, this filtering mechanism has an economic bias (children from less wealthy households do not progress as readily as their wealthier counterparts). School closures only make this worse in high stakes testing environments.
  6. Private Education: The pandemic may put vast numbers of private schools out of business or continue with very fragile business models and vulnerable balance sheets as school closures persist. This may disrupt market equilibrium, as demand for private education becomes less price elastic, and supply-side providers are forced to invest less in education quality-enhancing resources. This may also catalyze a significant shift of children away from private education to public education, resulting in permanent closures of private schools.

Learning Loss

Dr. Benjamin Piper followed with a deeper dive into learning loss and its implications for inequality. He also offered thoughts and reflections on what the opportunities might be for funders at this unique moment in history.

Pre-COVID-19, learning loss and, in particular, summer learning loss (the period between grade levels when many children experience a regression in content and skills they may have acquired in their most recently completed grade level) were already matters of concern in the education sector. Research published by Dr. Piper and his colleagues in Malawi revealed that children in transition between Grades 1 and 2 and Grades 3 and 4, were losing between 30-40 percent of their previous year’s learning. The takeaway here, is that gaps in instruction have dramatic impacts on learning.

Dr. Piper’s team then modeled data from pandemic-related school closures in dozens of low and middle income countries. The models suggest that learning loss will not affect the small percent of highest performing children. The children in the middle will lose some learning, commensurate with the amount of instructional time lost. But, for a vast number of children at the bottom of the distribution curve, pandemic-related learning loss will reduce most if not all of the skills and content they would have acquired in the 2020 academic year.  

The point of alarm from Dr. Piper’s research, therefore, is that the protracted time that children spend away from learning due to COVID-19 will have catastrophic implications on their educations and futures. Not only that, those children who are worst off will have the largest learning loss. Donors and implementers need to consider how their support to education systems will not only reduce learning loss but protect those at the bottom of the distribution who are most vulnerable.

A Word to Funders

Dr. Piper concluded his comments with recommendations for funders:

  1. Provide stability to grantees
  2. Don’t fund things that expand inequality
  3. Modest support for emergencies, sure
  4. But spend primarily on building back better
  5. Support structured pedagogical approaches that advance learning
  6. Make direct investments in better teaching
  7. Consider how to help evidence-based success models to scale

Our Gratitude

The Luminos Fund team cannot be more appreciative of Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper for the deeply insightful wisdom they shared during this important session. This is the type of thought leadership makes us hopeful that the world will indeed see constructive, agile, and innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: responses that reduce learning poverty, mitigate learning loss, and give all children a chance to unlock the light of learning in their lives.

Lifelong, stone-strong legacies

Lifelong, stone-strong legacies

Mubuso Zamchiya is Managing Director of the Luminos Fund

The Luminos Fund has discovered something special in “joyful learning.” That is the name we have given to our pedagogy – our approach to teaching and learning. At the core of joyful learning is the mission to help children acquire foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Especially marginalized children, who have missed out on an education because of poverty, crisis, or discrimination. But the magic of joyful learning lies in how skills acquisition actually takes place. It’s all in the relationship.

You see, the joyful learning journey is not primarily about amassing facts and details. It is instead a process of discovery that occurs through holistic connections. By connections, I mean that joyful learning is far from an abstract exercise. It truly invites children to engage. They engage with their own hearts and minds, with their peers and learning facilitators, with their families and communities, and with the broader environment and world around them.

By holistic, I mean that joyful learning invites children to muster, master, and mobilize all their faculties as they connect and engage. They bring their consciousness, their physical presence, their attributes, and their strengths. They marshal their emotional intelligence and they harness their cognitive competencies. They draw upon their social acumen and they share the fruit of their creative flair.

When discovery is fueled by holistic connections, as children act and respond to the stimulus of relationship, joy is both inevitable and automatic. They, of course, appreciate the fun in Luminos’ Second Chance program. But their joy is the product of that special “aha” moment when they realize that the ability to learn has been inside all along. What they needed was a little help to unlock the light within them. And that is precisely what joyful learning does. It helps children make holistic connections with their intrinsic power to learn.

Syrian refugee students in the Luminos Fund’s Lebanon program

We see this in so many profound examples of learning and life at Luminos. In my opinion, most resonant among these is the way our classrooms in Lebanon use psycho-social support and art therapy to help Syrian refugee Second Chance students work through the incredible trauma of their dislocation. There is great power in the act of using one’s own creative flair to make connections between the past, the present, and the future; great freedom in finding expression for one’s thoughts and emotions. Our students do so, not only through spoken and written words, but also through the much more communicative dialogue of markers, Crayons, and paint. As a testament to their resilience, artwork by some of our Syrian refugee students was celebrated recently at Christie’s, a pinnacle platform for global art.

Elsewhere recently, there was a different-yet-connected celebration of the arts. Just this week, global newspapers announced that certain iconic statues of the Zimbabwe Bird, which had been stolen during colonialism, are now being returned home. As a person of Zimbabwean heritage, who, among other things, also writes about Zimbabwean history, this news was a source of joy for me. There is no deep comparison between the trauma experienced by Syrian children and the journey of my early childhood. However, there is some small connection in our stories. I was born in exile as my parents, members of Africa’s formidable freedom generation, worked with their peers to bring independence to Zimbabwe. I therefore have a modicum of experience – not equivalent to our students in Lebanon, but a modicum nevertheless – of what it feels like to be dislocated.

The joy I have regarding the return of the Zimbabwe Bird statues is intertwined with my appreciation for the reconciliation the gesture forges with the past. Their repatriation provides Zimbabweans some degree of closure on a historical puzzle board that still has many missing pieces. In my thankfulness, as I absorb the significance of this moment, I find myself thinking about the eleventh-century artists who chiseled, shaped, and shined formless slabs of soapstone into these magnificent sculptures. I marvel at what thoughts, plans, ideas, hopes, and aspirations they might have sought to reconcile for themselves through the expression of their incredible art. These sculptures have provided an entire nation a great gift lasting many centuries. It makes me wonder what sort of education these sculptors would have experienced as children to make their work so brilliant.

I think that is why I feel so privileged to work at the Luminos Fund. In personal terms, Luminos is a place where I can contribute to the work of reconciling Africa’s past with its future. In broader terms, Luminos is also a platform upon which I can participate in helping children across the world unlock the light of learning in their lives. I derive pride that, in joyful learning, Luminos unashamedly embraces the arts as essential connective fiber in the holistic tapestry of relational discovery. I am also glad that in some small way, Luminos is playing a part in helping our Syrian refugee children build lifelong, stone-strong legacies that – like the Zimbabwe Bird – will similarly stand the test of time.

In personal terms, Luminos is a place where I can contribute to the work of reconciling Africa’s past with its future.

Mubuso Zamchiya
Relationships Power Africa. They Should Drive its Education, too.

Relationships Power Africa. They Should Drive its Education, too.

The following is a plenary address given by Mubuso Zamchiya, Managing Director of the Luminos Fund, to the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) Bi-Annual Meeting in November 2019 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The meeting was hosted by the Luminos Fund.

A young Program Officer, working at a large philanthropic institution, pays a visit to his former development studies Professor at Oxford. They greet warmly. And they reminisce about the many “save-the-world” arguments they once had. Spirited debates which rivaled that of Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly. Disputes softened only by the several pints they tenderly nursed at the Kings Arms, on the corner of Parks Road and Holywell Street.

On this occasion, seeking to recapture the erstwhile glow of the good old days, the Program Officer posits a question, “Professor,” he says, “What must I do to fulfill the objectives of SDG4?”

“Hmm,” the Professor muses. “Well, what does best practice tell you to do? What have you learned from the entire canon of development literature you’ve assimilated all these years?”

The Program Officer, back in student-mode, straightens his frame and most eagerly responds,

“You shall innovate, scale, mainstream, and reform. This, with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And you shall engage your partner as yourself.”

The Professor heartily congratulates him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will succeed.”

But, eager to go deeper and, perhaps, trying match the Professor’s intellect, the Program Officer asks a penetrative follow-up question.

“And so, Professor, please explain. Who exactly is my partner?”

The Professor responds with a brief anecdote.

“There was a certain community in a particular African country – one of the least economically-advanced nations in the world. Its population had been systematically colonized, despotized, and marginalized. Millions of adults were illiterate. And the formal education system was not serving many children well at all. Now by chance, the country was visited by the representatives of three international foundations. The leader of the first cohort was Debbie Deficit.

‘Oh it’s just awful,’ she complained during the site visit. ‘These people have absolutely no clue. What kind of parents stand in the way of their children going to school? And what kind of government fails to provide its citizens with quality education? I don’t see anything happening here, unless we intervene.’

‘I completely agree,’ said her colleague, Sid Savior. ‘We need to make things right. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’

The second convoy pulled up just as the first one was leaving. Its most vocal member was Pat Paternalist. ‘I mean, what do you expect?’ he said rhetorically. ‘It’s not a sophisticated country. It doesn’t have a lot of resources. Its teachers and education officials don’t have our sort of knowledge and expertise. We’ll just have to show them the way. Help them – whether they like it or not.’

When the third group arrived, Emma Empathy led her team off the bus. She immediately connected with the children. And she also sat down to listen to their parents. She had fruitful meetings with local educators and government officials about their work and their plans. And she constantly asked how her foundation might be of help. ‘We’ll fund what we can,’ Emma concluded. ‘Building, of course, on the remarkable progress you’ve already made.’”

At that point, the Professor squares up the Program Officer “Tell me,” she says. “What do you think? Which one of these groups was a good partner to the community?”

“I suppose, the one led by Emma Empathy,” he replies. “The one that built good relationships.”

And the Professor says to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

~~

Now, some of you will have noticed that my story is a cheeky adaptation of the parable of the good Samaritan. Yes, I remixed it. But, to depict a Professor, who, like the Lord Jesus, cares more that learners cultivate the right sort of relationships, and less that they demonstrate capacity for abstract intellect.

This is a crucial point. Especially in the African context – where having good relationships is both fundamental to the way of life and also forms the basis of how people learn. The connection is well-explained by Jomo Kenyatta (the first head of state of Kenya). In his seminal anthropological book, entitled Facing Mount Kenya, which is a fantastic body of literature, he discusses the structure of African society and the nature of the African mind. And while the subject is the Gikuyu people, the exposition captures the experience of Africans throughout the continent. Chapter five is of particular interest to us, as it examines traditional African education.

Says Kenyatta, “The striking thing in Gikuyu education, and the feature which most sharply distinguishes it from the European system, is the primary place given to personal relationships.” He notes that western education is characterized by five things: (i) the schoolhouse is the source of learning, (ii) freedom of personality is the greatest good, (iii) accumulation of knowledge is the chief objective, (iv) self-actualization is the highest aim, and (v) individuality is the finest ideal. But not so in African education. There, the foremost purpose is to build character for wise and useful living in a collective society. Not merely the acquisition of knowledge. In the African paradigm, relationships give agency to learning, and the homestead, not the schoolhouse, is the cornerstone of wisdom.

In African education, learning begins at birth and ends at death. And parents drive the process. They shape language, inform heritage, and provide apprenticeship. And the three concentric circles of relationship that organize African life – namely family, kinship, and peer group – facilitate the learning journey. Nothing is abstract in this approach. And every lesson – whether philosophical, ethical, or functional – has a specific interactive object to which it relates. Children learn what they practice and practice what they learn, as they emulate adults, and conduct their own experiments. All the time acquiring a mass of useful knowledge and proficiency in both functional and theoretical matters.

Assessment is also different in these two polar systems. Success measures in western education are largely transactional. They are all about value extraction – from the exchange between teacher and student. My inputs, your inputs. My outputs, your outputs. My outcomes, your outcomes. By contrast, progress measures in African education are relational. They involve monitoring the value that is inserted to the communion between family and child, kinspeople and child, and peer group and child. Our love, your love. Our well-being, your well-being. Our fulfillment, your fulfillment. Care is taken to ensure that learning reflects the culture and that the culture informs learning. It is the reason why African languages have words like Harambee in Kenya, Ujamaa in Tanzania, Ubuntu in South Africa, Hunhu in Zimbabwe, and Medemer in Ethiopia.

Now, I am not here to argue that there is no merit at all to western education. And I also am not saying that traditional African education is perfect. But I am suggesting that western education is a cultural import. One that sits very uncomfortably within its host. Moreover, since traditional African education persists within the ties of family, kinship, and peer group, there results a sort of “tale of two cities.” A forging of a complex context within which learners must code-switch daily – as between home and school. And because these two systems are in tension with each other, the souls of African children are very much being stretched dangerously thin. Some, indeed, to the very breaking point, where sense of identity, sense of belonging, and sense of readiness for adult life, are all but torn asunder.

What’s the way forward, then? Well, perhaps we cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But we can apply ourselves to listening. To Jomo Kenyatta, for example, who recommended, almost fifty-five years ago, that we ought to figure out how to connect formal education to the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and peer group. Or, more recently, to Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education at the University of Sussex, who has also called for a reclamation of African education. He argues that we need to fix the deficiencies in our interrogation of education delivery on the continent. We have focused largely on structural and capacity issues, which are important, of course. But this at the expense of deeply investigating fundamental questions related to pedagogy, culture, context, and relevance. And this also at the risk of causing children to become widgets in our production processes as we seek to mold international development outcomes in the image of SDG4.

The truth is, acing standardized tests and acing non-standardized life are dramatically different things. Excel academically or not, the learners who pass through our reformed education systems, must all go back and engage productively with their parents, siblings, kinspeople, and the broader society around them. But how, though, if their education does not prepare them to do so?

Therefore, when it comes to those core tenets of best practice in international development – namely the charges to innovate, scale, mainstream, and reform – I think the plea of Kenyatta and Akyeampong is that we stop throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to put to death our inner Debbie Deficit, and Sid Savior, and Pat Paternalist. Self-correct when we find ourselves disparaging rural parents for essentially homeschooling their children. Or African teachers for relying on pedagogies that are not scripted in western instructional manuals. Or government officials for not unequivocally adopting the imported interventions of international NGOs. And we need to bring to life our willingness to listen and learn from them. Not to hear a parroting of, “Think, pair, share,” or any other western instructional strategies. And not just to tick the box when the western curriculum is delivered in local languages. But to gain a deep and rich understanding of how African relationships and culture contribute to learning.

Perhaps the greatest contemporary “professor” on African relationships, was none other than the beloved musician, Oliver Mtukudzi. My favorite song from him is Dzoka Uyamwe. You see, Mtukudzi had kinship roots in Dande – a rural community in the Mashonaland region of Zimbabwe. There, and across the country, Mtukudzi was known as Sahwira – which means “close friend” or “good partner,” the kind who tells it like it is. And the song, Dzoka Uyamwe, is the lament of an African who has long been estranged from home and feels alienated in a foreign land. So, Mtukudzi’s lyrics say, “You see my dark skin and you conclude that I’m rotten. But a man’s rottenness is in his heart. And his darkness is in his mind. Because of you, I think of Dande. Of returning to Dande. Because I miss Dande.”

And since Mtukudzi’s music often follows a call-and-response structure, his melodious backup singers deliver the emotional overtones of a mother beseeching her last-born son to return. “Come back, my son. I’m waiting for you. Come back home and be nursed. Dzoka Uyamwe.”

Now, as a Zimbabwean – and as someone working in the field of international education – Dzoka Uyamwe strikes me in a profound way. So, in the mother’s portion of the song, I hear the voice of Africa itself. I hear the continent calling back its children. Children it knows feel alienated in an education system that has gone adrift. Dzoka Uyamwe. “Come back,” it says. “Back to those relational moorings that once nursed you and made you secure, and wise, and vital, and strong.

And since the way back is the way forward, I wonder whether the children of Africa will find good partners to accompany them there. Partners who will work with their parents and with their governments to transform the tale of two cities into a story about the best of both worlds. Both African and western education. It is exactly what the Ethiopian philosophy of Medemer is all about – combining the constituent elements of separate parts into a single or unified whole. This is in fact the crucial next step. Because we cannot secure the future for African children by indiscriminately destroying their past. You see, the blackness of Mtukudzi’s Dande – indeed, the blackness of all of Africa – is beautiful. And so if, in our pursuit of education development, we learn to look, not at the deficits of Dande, but at the fabric of riches which hold it together, then we can be confident that our contributions will be of some good.

Let me end with the words of N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, whom Kwame Akyeampong quotes in his Inaugural Professorial Lecture of 2018. Dr. Assié-Lumumba is a Cornell Professor and President of the World Council of Comparative Education Societies. She asks this:

“Which systems of education do we analyze to inform which future? From whose perspectives are learning opportunities seen or ignored? When studying education in the Global South or former colonies, do we tend to see opportunities in their systems of thought, learning, and knowledge? Or do we simply dismiss what already exists in favor of some so-called superior global knowledge?

Now, I know – because I created her –that Emma Empathy, and those like her, are committed to higher levels of reflectiveness and lower levels of dismissiveness in their work in Africa. And I have to believe that this room is full of Emma Empathys. I think that’s why we’re all here. To discuss government adoption, not as an abstract intellectual exercise. But as a pathway to surround children with the right relationships to help them learn. So let’s come together, not matter how different we are. Let’s unlock the light in our own hearts – and in every child. And let it be our love, their love. Our well-being, their well-being. Our fulfillment, their fulfillment. Medemer.

Thank you.

100,000 Stories to Inspire Millions

100,000 Stories to Inspire Millions

“Imagine the power of 100,000 stories!” That’s what comes to mind for Ahmed Badr when he considers all the out-of-school children who’ve been given a voice through the work of the Luminos Fund.

Upon first impression, Ahmed is unassuming, quiet, likable, and inviting, with a confident boyish charm. He gives nothing away in his gait or demeanor. No clues to indicate anything other than normalcy in his past. He appears to be a regular guy just living an ordinary life. That is, at least until he tells you the extraordinary tale of his childhood.

Ahmed was born in Iraq. He remembers his feelings of excitement to stay the night at his grandmother’s house. When he was picked up by his father the next day, things felt different — something wasn’t right. Ahmed soon learned that his home had been bombed the night before by militia troops. The ripple effect of this devastation carried Ahmed and his family quite unexpectedly from Baghdad and into Syria as Iraqi refugees. Two and a half years later, they were in the United States building a new life.

There was something poetic about listening to Ahmed recount his story at the Norwood Club in New York City, on a frosty evening just a few weeks ago in January. He was surrounded by the inspiring artwork of Syrian children who, currently in Lebanon, are participants in the Luminos Fund’s refugee education program. Luminos is actively working in Lebanon because we believe all children should experience joyful learning, regardless of circumstances. We see art therapy as an integral component in redeeming the joyful journey of childhood after trauma.

“Art is expression. It is prose and poetry through paper and paint. It captures and carries the heart, the imagination, the soul, the very voice of each child. It transports them to us, to the very people who should hear and respond by recognizing them as individuals who matter. Art is agency. It is empowerment. It is story telling.” – Ahmed Badr

For Ahmed, agency, empowerment, and storytelling are the three legs of a sturdy stool. Together they provide a platform for displaced children – young people like him, like the Syrian refugees, and like the out-of-school children in Ethiopia and Liberia whom Luminos serves. A platform upon which they can stand and activate their own power and engage productively with the world.

If you have not heard him speak before, you should find an opportunity to listen. Ahmed’s outlook is refreshing. Although there certainly exists no shortage of geopolitical complexity in his existence as an Iraqi American, Ahmed feels no dissonance in the parts of him that represent his early years and his current life. Instead, he believes his different vantage points equip him with a unique voice, an instrument that can help the world convert its confusion into cooperation.

When he scans the room and imbibes the artwork of Luminos children, Ahmed sees victors, not victims. They have struggled, yes. Travailed unimaginable traumas. However, their knowledge, wisdom, and experiences make them vital voices in the great global discourse. They need to be heard so they can help the world step into the shoes of its better self. Ahmed’s current work, as a writer, speaker, social entrepreneur, and poet, is focused on accomplishing just that.

“What often happens is that people don’t think they have a story to tell. But everything changes when they begin to realize that one of their most powerful attributes is the very narrative of their lives. The work we should be doing – as educators, social entrepreneurs, and international development professionals – is elevating the voices of the displaced. And this is important: we should elevate them and not replace them.” – Ahmed Badr

Ahmed is on a crusade to help displaced young people feel valued, validated, and listened to. He wants to help activate the power that is already in them. Like the team at Luminos, Ahmed believes that the agency, empowerment, and storytelling that is born through joyful learning can help unlock the light in every child, so that every child can unlock light throughout the world.

“The creative offerings in the insights and imaginations of these children need to be seen and engaged, so that the world can truly see them and also itself. The work Luminos does – this combination of creativity and education – has an effect that will cascade across generations. As each child experiences joyful learning, they will take that seed and plant it in the heart of their present communities and in the spirit of their future children. 100,000 will impact millions. You can’t help but get excited about that.” – Ahmed Badr

Ahmed Badr spoke at the Norwood Club in New York on January 31st, 2019. He was the much appreciated guest of the Luminos Fund, at an event very generously hosted by Madeleine Schachter and supported by docents from Christie’s. The event showcased the artwork of Syrian from Luminos’ refugee education program in Lebanon. Discover more about Ahmed Badr and his work here.

Globally, the Luminos Fund has helped over 120,000 children get a second chance to learn.


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