March/April 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 4

MIT Opens Learning for Refugees

Admir Masic

It’s December 2016, and I’ve just arrived in the port town of Pozzallo in Sicily, where I am watching a group of boys playing soccer. The boys are animated and loud, fighting for a chance at the ball. A typical group of boys, except that these boys are refugees from Africa who have just made the long and arduous crossing across the Mediterranean Sea by boat. Beside them, a huge pile of life jackets marks the arrival of the thousands before them. Many did not make it.

As I am reflecting on this unsettling reality, one of the boys breaks out from the group, and comes running towards me. He stops, and looks up at me with an excited smile. “I heard you were a professor from MIT.” I nod, “Admir Masic, pleasure to meet you,” and reach out my hand. “I have always wanted to shake the hand of an MIT professor,” he says to me, “I’ve been studying for the SAT so I can apply to your university,” before grabbing my visit card, turning back and disappearing into the nameless group of boys. The jarring moment transports me back in time.

It is 1992, I am in a refugee camp in Croatia, by the seaside, having just escaped the horrors of war that was devastating my homeland in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am playing endless rounds of table tennis with other kids in the camp, because, as a refugee, I am not allowed to go to school.

After months of pleading, my mom finally convinces a local high school to take me in as an auditor, and I substitute the hours of ping pong with hours spent solving chemistry equations. My future career was born out of a mixture of luck and desperation. I felt like I was living in a parallel world of discrimination and suffering, without rights or money, and most importantly, without prospect for a better future. The only thing that eventually gave me hope was the universal value of education.

Back at MIT, I am sitting in my office and looking at the diplomas and chemistry awards I would go on to win in those refugee years, thinking back on the key moments that shaped my trajectory: the school principal that extended compassion to me and finally allowed me to enroll in school, winning the local chemistry competition, the Open Society Institute Croatia scholarship award that gave me so much confidence, the volunteers that took me under their wing and brought me to Italy, and the endless list of humanitarians who supported me on my way to finishing my PhD.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude at having made it to MIT, a place that values innovation, science, and excellence, but also with a sense of responsibility. There are millions of people forcibly displaced every year – for political, economic, social, or more recently climate change related reasons. How can I do my part to support those who have come after me? How can we open the pathway to that young boy at the 48-hour collection center in Italy, to get a quality education? How can we make education a vessel for a better life for those in the wake of displacement, disruption, and loss? Can technology indeed transform our capacity to democratize education? As MIT Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma asked in a recent podcast about his book Grasp, how can we bring water to those thirsty for education through digital learning? These types of questions were the catalyst that drove me to start the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT).

ReACT is an effort to develop global educational programs that target the needs of refugees, migrants, and economically disadvantaged populations. ReACT applies an Agile Continuous Education (ACE) approach to provide holistic support for talented refugee learners in online, cohort-based, certificate programs. ReACT invests in emerging youth leaders who are embedded within local innovation hubs around the world, supporting these learners to be catalysts of change where they are and nurturing their journeys to higher education and meaningful careers. As Hala Fadel, chair of ReACT’s Advisory Council puts it, we want to create role models among refugees to break barriers and “ceilings of hope” for others.

Through the support of the MIT community, ReACT has grown from a former refugee’s dream to a worldwide movement encompassing seven hubs (Jordan, Uganda, USA, Colombia, Uruguay, Afghanistan, Greece) and learners from 29 countries.

Within this vibrant ecosystem of digital learning, learning sciences, and leading education design, ReACT is growing the reach and impact of MIT OpenLearning. Built out of a combination of MITx courses, OpenCourseWare resources, and MIT Bootcamps entrepreneurship workshops, ReACT weaves these educational assets together into yearlong virtual certificate programs. We started with the Certificate in Computer and Data Science, now in its fourth year. Last year, ReACT had nearly 2,000 applicants for its Certificate in Computer and Data Science program. This very competitive program, with an admission rate of 7%, provides a platform for the top talent in the world to come together in an intensive yet supportive community learning environment.

ReACT students thrive in the MIT Mens et Manus environment, applying what they learn in experiential projects and internships. The majority are employed immediately following the program at companies like Microsoft, Facebook, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), and Hikma, just to mention a few. ReACT opens up new opportunities through open learning for learners whose traditional education has been disrupted, talented individuals who truly believe in education as the key to their success. And with this stamp they naturally become catalysts of change in their communities. Like Jesse Inga, the young Congolese woman who I recently met in Kenya. After completing ReACT, she co-founded the Solidarity Initiative for Refugees, a community organization that provides education access and livelihood training using digital learning to refugees in Kakuma refugee camp. “Education gives us hope,” Jesse shared. And it does, for all the other ReACT students who are pivoting in their disrupted careers or looking to launch their own businesses (75% of alumni are considering entrepreneurial ventures).

As of this writing in March 2022, in just one month, more than four million people have fled Ukraine. Seeing the sequence of events happening in Ukraine these days feels, for me personally, like history repeating itself. I remember vividly the images of my home burned to the ground, and long cold nights spent in the basement of our friend’s house. We would stay up and argue about how many rebar concrete floors it would take to stop a missile from killing us. The sirens blaring outside still induce fear and give me chills if I hear them now after 30 years, coming from a YouTube video covering the war in Ukraine.

We at ReACT are actively working on expanding opportunities for those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine to join our programs.

We are also working with the MIT community and our global networks to identify and support collaborative efforts to expand our support of refugee learners and educators worldwide through our convening of the Migration Summit at MIT this April. I can’t stress highly enough the importance of us being human, humanitarian, and close to the fleeing people of Ukraine and all migrants to make sure they do not enter those parallel worlds, and help them overcome the limbos and challenges of being displaced today.

I remember every single person who I talked to about ReACT, and who somehow helped to make it what it is now. I learned through my experience the importance of knowing for yourself that you were there when someone desperately needed you. Very much like the Italian volunteers that were coming to my camp, and literally changed my life. Because humans thrive through humanitarianism. And our MIT community through ReACT once again showed its core nature, people ready to give a hand, generous and skilled, efficient and reliable, but most importantly human and humanitarian. For me, as a former refugee and active part of this community, this latter is what truly matters. We have created a new model of education that can holistically support vulnerable and historically marginalized learners, opening agile continuous education pathways to new knowledge that will serve a better world. We have brought MIT’s values to the brightest learners, to those thirstiest for education in the world. Imagine what we could do next.