Ford Foundation Supports UC Davis Efforts to Help Refugees Reclaim Right to Education

Keith David Watenpaugh with Syrian refugees in Lebanon
Keith David Watenpaugh, a UC Davis professor, discusses the Article 26 Backpack with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (Courtesy photo)

Quick Summary

  • Advisers, technology to help refugees reconstruct educational background
  • Cloud-based backpack allows safe storage, sharing of contents with higher ed, employers
  • Spring launch in Lebanon aims to reach 600 refugees

The University of California, Davis, will use a $500,000 core grant from the Ford Foundation to develop Article 26 Backpack, a cloud-based “ecosystem” to help refugees and other vulnerable young people reclaim their education.

The initiative — to be piloted in Lebanon in the spring — blends technology with face-to-face counseling to document, evaluate, translate and share the educational accomplishments, experiences and skills of college-aged refugees and displaced students. It will also connect users to higher education institutions, training and scholarship programs, and employers.

Named for the article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that establishes the right to education, Article 26 Backpack has grown from work that project director Keith David Watenpaugh of UC Davis has done among Syrian refugees.

“We cannot afford to lose this generation of young people,” said the professor and director of the Human Rights Studies Program within the university’s College of Letters and Science.

The ongoing Syrian civil war has internally displaced or made refugees of more than 12 million people, Watenpaugh said, and among them are hundreds of thousands of young people who were in university or should be.

“Through education and better access to training and mentoring opportunities,” he said, “Article 26 Backpack will help these young people become part of the societies where they must find refuge, and eventually, play a critical role in rebuilding their homeland.”

In collaboration with Global Affairs at UC Davis, the project brings together the expertise of the campus and three partners: the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers; the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, one of the oldest and most important universities in the Middle East; and leading educational software firm iQ4.

‘Will shape international best practices’

“Professor Watenpaugh is leading a team that will not only shape international best practices surrounding migration and access to higher education but also make a real difference in the lives of refugee young people,” said Joanna Regulska, vice provost and associate chancellor of Global Affairs.

Refugee students face significant impediments to re-entering academic life from a lack of documents to little clarity about the quality and transferability of educational opportunities. And institutions may reject what credentials they do have or not understand the system of education they came from.

To address these challenges, Article 26 Backpack will be developed, implemented and evaluated over the next year.

Spring launch set for Lebanon

The digital tool, to be accessible in Arabic and English, will first be deployed across multiple sites in Lebanon, one of the countries where many Syrian refugees have fled.

Over almost three weeks this spring, trained guides from Lebanon and the local refugee community will work with more than 600 refugees and at-risk Lebanese of college age to create their cloud-based backpacks and begin the process of filling them.

“We are particularly interested in reaching young people with little or no documentation,” Watenpaugh said, “in an effort to explore ways to reconstruct or find other ways to account for their academic and training background.”

Then trained registrars, admissions officers and scholarship agencies throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America will provide feedback on how their organizations might use the backpacks to assist the students.

Nasser Yassin, director of research at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute, said the project harnesses the latest innovations to help pave the way to higher education for thousands of young refugees as well as their host communities.

After evaluation, further implementation is planned for other parts of the Middle East, South Asia and East Africa by 2020. iQ4, the software company, has agreed to host backpacks on a cloud computing network and provide maintenance for the next three years.

Since 2013, Watenpaugh, a historian of the modern Middle East, has led a multidisciplinary research team that produced several major studies on the hundreds of thousands of Syrian students and scholars who are refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Greece and Turkey.

The Ford Foundation invests in ideas, individuals and institutions advancing human dignity around the world.

Media Resources

Keith David Watenpaugh, College of Letters and Science, +1 530-574-0815 cell (speaks English and Arabic),

Julia Ann Easley, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-752-8248,

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