Breaking the limbo: Displaced people in Indonesia take education into their own hands

The Refugee Learning Center, Cisarua, Indonesia.
The Refugee Learning Center, Cisarua, Indonesia.

Stranded with very little hope of finding a new home, a group of refugees in West Java, Indonesia has set up a school to help other refugees get an education and prevent mental health problems.

Many of the 14,000 refugees in Indonesia have waited years to be resettled to a place where they can go to school or get a job. Indonesia is not a signatory of the United Nations convention of refugees, so under international law is not obliged to look after them. They cannot legally work, use public services, obtain citizenship or access formal education.

Australia was the main resettlement location for refugees in Indonesia, but in 2013 it adopted strict measures to discourage new arrivals. It was providing the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with funding to meet basic needs of refugees in Indonesia, but since March last year it has begun to reduce its contribution.

The Refugee Learning Center in Cisarua, West Java, was founded in 2015 by a group of refugees. It is one of several projects that have emerged from the community to provide activities and learning opportunities.

An activity at the Refugee Learning Center. All photos from their Facebook page.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Zakareia Shadkaam, the manager and principal of the school. He arrived in Indonesia in March 2014 after fleeing war in Afghanistan.

'Not being able to go back to my country or further my education, I thought I could at least help children here get one'

When I first arrived, I translated for a lot of other refugees, because I could speak English. I would go to medical clinics with them and explain to doctors what was wrong with them, and I’d talk to authorities on their behalf.

When I heard about refugees coming together to create this amazing initiative, I was really touched. I thought I had something to offer; I wanted to share my knowledge and offer my skills to the community. Personally, I wanted to keep myself occupied because I was worried about developing depression or another mental illness. Not being able to go back to my country or further my education, I thought I could at least help children here get one. So I joined the Refugee Learning Center in June 2016.

The Refugee Learning Center team in 2017.

'They have to have documents, which none of them have and none of them can get'

When refugees come to Indonesia, they don’t have access to education, and they can’t go to university or legally work. In theory, the children are allowed to attend primary and secondary school, but they have to have documents, which none of them have, and none of them can get.

Most refugees have been here for around half a decade, but some for even longer. That’s a long time without being able to access formal education or work.

One of the students at the Refugee Learning Center.


We have around 280 students. In the morning, we have 180 children, and in the afternoon we have around 100 adults. We teach fundamental subjects to the children: science, social sciences and maths. To the adults, we mainly teach languages: English and Indonesian. Our students are mostly from Afghanistan, but also from Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq and there are a few from Somalia.

A Refugee Learning Center classroom.


Our staff have the same background as the students, they’re also refugees. They’re a bit older, but most of them are still quite young.

We don’t offer a formal education, and there are no officially recognised certificates or diplomas. We just offer a basic education.

We try to keep as low a profile as we can, but at the same time we need to show how we’re developing. All of our funding comes from crowdfunding so we have to use social media and publicise what we’re doing. Fortunately we have not run into trouble with the authorities.

Shadkaam tells us: “This one is after a workshop conducted by our friends/visitors from Singapore.”

'If we don’t keep them occupied, their lives might be ruined'

Many of our students are teenagers. If we don’t keep them occupied, their lives might be ruined. Without something like the school, they become depressed, homesick and can be severely affected by mental illness.

We’re hoping to continue doing what we’re doing, but unfortunately we have a lot of people on our waiting list. These are people with little to do, and they don’t want to waste their lives away. But we don’t have the resources to deal with them all.

'Refugees just want a place to call home'

Since 2017, the United Nations refugee agency in Indonesia is telling refugees and asylum seekers they may never be resettled to another country.


It is becoming difficult for refugees here. They don’t have the right to work, so they don’t have an income. That means they have to ask friends for money. But if you’re stuck like that for a decade, even your friends can turn their backs, and a lot of them do.

Refugees just want a place to call home. It doesn’t have to be Australia. Just somewhere where they’re respected and have the right to work. They came here because there’s a UNHCR office in Jakarta. They came to find a safe place.

Article by Peter O’Brien (@POB_journo)