Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.
As Kabul fell to the Taliban, Ahmad Rostami knew it wouldn’t be safe to keep documents related to his business master’s degree from the American University of Afghanistan or his career working on projects with ties to the U.S. Before he smashed his external hard drives with a hammer and buried some physical papers, he uploaded copies of key documents to Article 26 Backpack—a website designed to help refugees securely store documentation of their educational credentials.
When people forced to flee their homes then arrive in new countries, their efforts to continue with higher education and careers are often stymied. For example, it can be difficult or impossible to produce prior academic records, which are key to taking next steps. Some programs help maintain, verify, or translate credentials, but challenges remain.
How to address refugees’ qualifications became a major issue amid the wave of migration around 2014, which included many highly educated people, according to Erika Kalocsányiová, a research fellow at the University of Greenwich and a linguist focused on integration of students of refugee backgrounds. But few of those refugees had official copies of their diplomas and transcripts on hand, and they could not afford to have their credentials evaluated, a process that certifies that a person’s previous degrees are equivalent to categories in another country.
“To be more flexible in recognizing people’s previous qualifications, that is something which requires some effort and imagination and looking through what has been done in other countries and what went well,” Kalocsányiová says. So while plenty of barriers to education and career success abroad abound, like language and higher education costs, dealing with missing documentation is relatively low-hanging fruit.
“I think that that is something which really can be addressed,” Kalocsányiová says.
Control Over Documents
Amid the Syrian civil war, University of California, Davis, human rights professor Keith Watenpaugh heard about young people in refugee camps in Jordan traveling back to Syria, risking their lives to retrieve transcripts and documents vital to continuing their studies.
This prompted Watenpaugh to create Article 26 Backpack, a secure storage platform hosted by UC Davis and named for the article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that states the right to an education.
Students and professionals can upload academic transcripts, diplomas, professional CVs, and videos of themselves telling their stories, and then share those documents with admissions officials and potential employers.
In addition to safeguarding users’ qualifications, Article 26 Backpack also helps make sure people have access to their own records, which Watenpaugh says is often punitively restricted by authoritarian governments.
“The individual’s rights to possess, hold, and determine how information about themselves is shared with others is a fundamental human right that Backpack helps to define and defend,” Watenpaugh says.
Since the organization was launched in 2018, more than 3,500 people have used Article 26 Backpack, which is now available in seven languages. A survey found that 35% of Backpackers used the platform to apply for financial aid, 30% applied to university, and 20% applied for a job.
In 2012, Eslam Abo Al Hawa fled the Syrian civil war to Lebanon. Relatives who remained in Syria retrieved documents for Abo Al Hawa that helped her continue her education. She enrolled as a student at the American University of Beirut and later started working with Article 26 Backpack, helping other refugees sign up. She says a community emerged around Backpack that supported people to take steps in their careers.
Now, Abo Al Hawa is getting her master’s in business analytics, and she updates her Backpack with certificates she earns through extracurricular activities. While Backpack is not currently widely accepted by university admissions officials, as some users expected, she says it is still worthwhile to use it.
“Sometimes, you would only need it once in your life, which is maybe when you apply for university or for something that’s very crucial,” Abo Al Hawa says. “But it’s worth the effort at that moment, because it saves your life.”
For Rostami, knowing that digital copies of his documents were safe was a comfort as his family was trying to leave Afghanistan. They had been advised, he said, that it would not even be safe to have U.S. phone numbers with them.
“That was the only big kind of hope for me, because I said, ‘OK, this is where I can keep my documents,’” Rostami says.
When Rostami’s family eventually left Afghanistan, they managed to bring some physical copies of documents that had not been destroyed. Even with his documentation, and his credentials validated by a Canadian evaluator, he’s faced roadblocks to landing meaningful employment in Portugal, where he currently resides. Officials told him that to use his bachelor’s and master’s degrees on a job search platform, he’d need original documents authenticated by the Afghan embassy, which is not possible. He now has an entry-level job, but without having his credentials recognized, it will be difficult to find more specialized work.
Though Rostami has not been able to use the documents he saved on Article 26 Backpack in Portugal, he believes it is helpful to have digital backups of his records—perhaps to have his credentials evaluated in another country.
Watenpaugh acknowledges institutions here and around the world may not accept digital copies of documents that users save on the platform, because many of those institutions are primarily concerned about the authenticity of credentials. Watenpaugh says Backpack could be part of a larger conversation about how practices like credentialing can be “barriers for forms of social mobility.” However, documents saved on Backpack can help people take next steps, like having credentials evaluated.
“They often see themselves as gatekeepers and not door openers,” Watenpaugh says.
In addition to empowering users to have control over their documents and story, Article 26 Backpack tries to help users open doors in other ways. The project helps connect Backpackers with vouchers for credential evaluation and language exams, spreading the word about opportunities through a newsletter.
Mujtaba Juya, an Afghan student evacuated to the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, got a voucher to take a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam through Article 26 Backpack. The exam fee of $230 USD would be difficult to afford on his limited stipend, but it’s vital as he applies to continue his education in Europe or the U.S.
Juya does not use Article 26 Backpack to store documents—he uses a Google account for that. Still, he says the project is important because it lets students know about opportunities.
“If you don’t have this medium connecting to people, there wouldn’t be the possibility of any kind of help,” he says.
While Article 26 Backpack works to maintain copies of documents and credentials, other initiatives focus on verifying displaced people’s prior qualifications and translating them to their new country.
Launched in 2017, the European Qualifications Passport assesses evidence of a refugee’s previous education and work experience, interviews them, and then issues a document that summarizes their background and skills for potential schools and employers.
Kalocsányiová says the initiative has a lot of benefits, including that, in theory, it enables people who are evaluated in one European country to seek out opportunities in other participating countries. However, the passport is not formal recognition, so it’s up to higher education institutions whether to accept the passport alone, or require additional documentation.
Similar services are available from credential evaluators in North America. In 2016, World Education Services (WES), an organization that verifies credentials, launched a pilot to help Syrians arriving in Canada who lacked sufficient documentation to go through a traditional evaluation, according to Bryce Loo, WES associate director of research. The Gateway Program is now available in both the U.S. and Canada for people from seven countries. Some 4,085 people have received reports, which can help with higher education, professional licenses, and employment.
Still, a limitation is that it is up to institutions and employers to decide whether to recognize the credential evaluation, notes Loo. Removing the documentation barriers that refugees face is ultimately not up to a single entity, Loo says, but requires collaboration.
“It really is kind of an ecosystem of institutions, organizations, governments that really need to come together to work on these issues.”
Elizabeth Hewitt is an American independent journalist based in the Netherlands. She frequently writes about aging, nature and culture, and is interested in the impacts of public policy on people's lives. Her work has appeared in publications including Reasons To Be Cheerful, Being Patient and many others. She can be reached through email: [email protected]