InZone – From the training of humanitarian interpreters to Higher education in emergencies

The early days

In 2005, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and USAID contacted the École de Traduction et d’Interprétation (ETI), University of Geneva, with an enquiry as to whether it could offer further training to interpreters operating at that time in Iraq. In response, ETI developed a 2-week programme to dispense the envisaged training. Of 14 students originally lined up for the course, only 4 managed to obtain visas to travel to Switzerland.

The knowledge within ETI on skill-acquisition, interpreter training and virtual learning was conducive to offering this training to candidates operating outside the specialized discipline of conference interpretation: the exercise involved a humanitarian dimension new to ETI’s experience.

Subsequently, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) approached ETI for the purpose of preparing and up-skilling the persons it assigned as interpreters in the field. After 2 such exercises, ETI was invited to present at an MIT-sponsored conference in Jordan on new technologies for development. It did so, on the basis of the data that it was beginning to collate from these experiences.

That presentation addressed several challenges for the future: the ethics of interpreting in fragile contexts, as well as the need to train not only the interpreters themselves but also the officers of the institutions for whom they would be working. That personnel needed a better understanding of the interpreter’s role and of how they could better utilize the interpreter’s skills.

The evaluation of these experiences also highlighted that there were conflicting constraints between:

  • an institution’s wish to place its interpreters on a professional footing; and
  • an institution’s willingness to invest in the right environment conducive to the in-depth acquisition of the related professional skills.

This militated in favour of blended learning (in the field and virtual), and the time required for success in the virtual component could not be under-estimated.

At this point, the Project, gaining publicity, was known as the Centre for Interpreting in Zones of Crisis and War; a Portal was installed on the University website and the title of InZone was adopted (standing for “Centre for Interpreting in Conflict Zones”, the war component having been removed).

First field trainings

Contacts with UNHCR Nairobi were established in 2009 and this new collaboration led to further courses being offered there from 2010 onwards; these also followed the blended model. Originally, the beneficiaries were interpreters already working for refugees arriving in Nairobi. However, UNHCR was quick to invite InZone to deploy training in the Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya.

This was a new departure for InZone: training refugees in the field to become interpreters.

Contacts followed with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF Switzerland operating in Somalia), which involved a new sustainability dimension: the exercises conducted by one generation of students would be reproduced and used as training material by subsequent generations. The experience of this course development was significant: hitherto, InZone had been collaborating with partners within a clearly defined context set by International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The MSF cooperation took InZone beyond that enclosure into the realm of education in settings with a pressing humanitarian dimension, but in which there was no legal base for the provision of interpretation.

InZone attracted attention from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). This body sought the training of interpreters already operating in various locations in that country, again outside the IHL framework.

InZone’s internal skill resources were now being pushed to the extreme in yet another fragile context.

Furthermore, the heterogeneous conditions in which InZone was now working (urban environments, refugee camps), and differing levels of education of the student audiences for which it was catering, constituted a major challenge. Faced with the objective of professionalizing humanitarian communication, InZone realized that the broader dimension of higher education as a whole was central to the endeavour.

Higher Education for Refugees

It was precisely at this juncture that it became acutely clear that there were very few actors in the field who were supporting higher education efforts in favour of refugees. Furthermore, unlike primary and secondary education, higher education is not addressed by IHL. InZone, as one of the few education providers at the tertiary level, was confronted with pressing demands from several quarters to become active in this broader context of higher education, given the overwhelming numbers of refugees and displaced persons.

InZone’s soul-searching coincided with the development by Geneva University of a strategy for closer engagement with the international bodies of Geneva, as well as the University’s concern to impact the real world of work. It therefore accompanied a general shift towards a new vision of higher education provision, within which InZone would be operating with a range of partners. InZone was well equipped to set an example, given its accumulated scientifically-validated experience of virtual learning methods - which granted new access for refugees to their development needs. This broke away from the more traditional approach of distributing scholarships and stipends to a selected few to attend traditional higher education establishments in distant locations.

Accordingly, InZone was prompted to revisit its own vision and field of action. The experience that it had gained in training humanitarian interpreters could be put to use in the broader context of multilingual humanitarian communication. In this way, it could act as an enabler for other higher education actors keen to engage in fragile contexts. UNHCR had become cognizant of the advantages that InZone could offer in this way and its action was warmly encouraged by that refugee agency.

However, given the vast challenge of meeting the needs of the world’s refugees, it became clear that InZone could not possibly operate in every fragile context. It therefore needed to design an incubator model to foster the engagement of a range of actors on a broader scale. This was the only responsible way of addressing situations of protracted displacement, in particular in the Horn of Africa. The Syrian conflict also had provoked “academic displacement”, with over 70 000 Syrian university students in Lebanon, 15 000 in Jordan and 30 000 in Turkey, with similar numbers in Germany and Austria.

It was in the field that the first group of such actors was discovered:

These had introduced a more traditional education approach into fragile settings, which offered InZone an opportunity to learn from their experience in developing, in turn, its own approaches to education in refugee camps. InZone signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Kenyatta University and operated in partnership in Dadaab refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya. For this purpose, it designed higher education models drawing upon new forms of virtual learning, with strong local support. It proved gratifying to see that the original pedagogical model was now able to empower refugee students and, thereby, achieve the model’s sustainability. Peer-tutoring was at the heart of the model. Such tutors have proved to be the medium through which conflict-resolution skills can be built, with ties being established across ethnic divides.

Fostering collaboration and partnerships

Virtual learning and Open Educational Resources (OERs) were central to meeting the extraordinary demand for higher education in fragile contexts. InZone was therefore encouraged to bring all of the known actors in higher education in emergencies together to generate greater insight into operating in emergencies across the globe. At this point, the Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS) awarded a grant to InZone for the purpose of mapping the domain of Higher Education in Emergencies and paths towards its optimal development to benefit refugees. Subsequently in June 2015, given the collective know-how of the various actors, a Summer School was organized under the aegis of the University of Geneva and in collaboration with UNHCR. This gathered individuals operating in fragile contexts across the globe to explore more effective ways of meeting education needs in humanitarian contexts.

Yet again, and together with UNHCR Education/Innovation, InZone was tasked with organizing the first Connected Learning Consortium Workshop. Its objective was to explore innovative ways of meeting the needs of refugee learners by utilizing new learning technologies and through partnerships between higher education providers.

Throughout InZone’s endeavours, several values and principles have remained central: the preservation of the language and culture of the country or region in conflict; the promotion of 21st century skills whose application is conducive to conflict resolution and the reconstruction of societies; the belief that higher education and universities are central to “building back better” as learners are empowered to be the agents of change; that this progression should not be driven by the North or the West, but should take place in collaboration with the South and East.

Accordingly, as it embraces a daunting future, InZone has a duty to remain in the field, to develop Higher Education Spaces in humanitarian settings and to act as a scientific observer. In this way, it takes on the role of a new species of humanitarian actor. It is the cherished hope that Higher Education Spaces can become islands of stability in a sea of conflict and uncertainty; that they can be places from which refugees may integrate into the fabric of the host country or, we dare to believe, from which they may return to their home countries, to rebuild their academic and economic infrastructure, to generate livelihoods and shape the more secure societies of the future.