USF Sarasota-Manatee duo study Uganda post-war fight for education

eearl@bradenton.comOctober 28, 2013 

University of South Florida Professor Jody McBrien, third from left, and student Ashley Metelus, far right, conduct research in Uganda last summer on refugee communities and post-war education.PHOTO PROVIDED.

SARASOTA -- University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee professor Jody McBrien and student Ashley Metelus now bring an international perspective to classrooms.

McBrien and Metelus recently returned from a summer research trip to Uganda, where McBrien continued her research of refugee communities, and Metelus conducted her first major research project for genocide studies and education in a post-war society.

"Education is the best way to increase social justice," McBrien said.

McBrien and Metelus said years of violence led to a broken education system in Uganda, and their research provides insights for students at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

"Not a week goes by that I don't draw from my research when teaching my students," said McBrien, an international perspectives professor in the College of Education. "We sometimes take education for granted here."

McBrien was invited to Uganda by a researcher who had read her published works on refugee studies.

Metelus, a junior, said she got in touch with McBrien and the opportunity to go to Uganda after expressing interest in holocaust and genocide studies during a campus tour of the university.

During her independent study, Metelus stayed in Lira, Uganda, in a house with two Belgian students do

ing research for their master's degrees. Metelus did her research at a boarding school that had once been a rehabilitation center for abductees.

The Lord's Resistance Army war lasted 23 years, concluding in 2008 with no official peace treaty. McBrien said families moved out of villages into refugee camps during the war, but rebels raided the camps, burning and attacking the people with machetes.

Metelus also interviewed teachers who taught during the Lord's Resistance Army war to investigate educational challenges in post-war Uganda.

Metelus said the students and teachers she interviewed brought up the same three or four educational issues in Uganda.

"One of the issues is school fees," Metelus said. "Even when they do find the money, they can be turned away because the school is halfway through the semester, or it is exam time."

Many students are either orphans or children of peasant farmers. The school fees they struggle to pay range from $25 to $100 per semester. McBrien said even that price is huge for people making $1 per day.

McBrien said Kampala, Uganda's capital, is a metropolitan area for industry, government offices and secretary services. It is between a six- and seven-hour drive from Lira. McBrien said the country as a whole is primarily agrarian.

Metelus said most women in the neighborhood she stayed in didn't work, and the men who did work had basic jobs.

"One neighbor worked in a lab, but he was not guaranteed that he would always have that job," Metelus said. "He said we would need to find more work on a farm."

Metelus and McBrien said a common fear college students in Uganda share with students in America is unemployment. Even with a degree, jobs in Uganda are scarce.

Metelus said there are also morale issues for teachers in Uganda.

"Teachers don't get paid, or they go months without pay and go on strikes," Metelus said.

McBrien said teachers in Uganda make the equivalent of $100 per month.

Metelus said many students mentioned the practice of "caning" in schools.

"Teachers can abuse students," Metelus said.

Metelus said solutions to post-war struggles in education could include teacher training, conflict resolution training and improved government funding to alleviate the burden of school fees.

McBrien said many teachers in Uganda are still suffering from post-war trauma and have not had rehabilitation.

"There are few counseling services available there," McBrien said. "Although one of my colleagues has just started one."

McBrien said foreign programs tend to fail.

"They bring in programs from the U.S. or England and plop it in to another culture," McBrien said. "It is essential to my work there that I do not bring a program. Wisdom comes from the teachers and the women I work with. I am a facilitator to help with greater ideas, but if it doesn't come to them, they are not going to accept it, and why should they?"

The second strand of research is resettlement countries. McBrien said the United States resettles the most, at about 70,000 people per year. McBrien said there is a difference in the way the education of immigrants and refugees should be handled.

"Most immigrants make a choice, typically for economic reasons, educational reasons or rejoining family," McBrien said. "Refugees flee without a choice out of fear for their lives or political reasons or wars. There are also environmental refugees from tsunamis and earthquakes."

McBrien said little things common for most school children could disturb a refugee student.

"If you have kid in school who has been through, let's say, Darfur, and you don't tell them a fire drill will occur, that can send kids under their desks in panic and immobile," McBrien said. "Sometimes it is just little things, like when a teacher yells at a class."

McBrien will be researching government policies for resettlement in New Zealand next year.

"The great question of my life's research is what causes some people post-trauma to become empathic and loving and others to become bitter and angry," McBrien said.

McBrien said many factors affect post-traumatic growth and stress.

"One factor is spirituality, which is strong in Uganda," McBrien said. "There are also support networks and biological factors."

Metelus said she wants to return to Uganda to visit, although she admitted she resisted going to Africa at first.

"Going to Africa is common, and I wanted to do something different, but going to Uganda opened a lot of doors," Metelus said.

Metelus said this was her first time conducting major research.

Through connections she made with the Belgian student interns in Uganda, Metelus will be going to Germany and Belgium next summer to study German. She will also help in a World War I museum during the 100th anniversary of the war and interview Belgians for their perspective on the conflict as it has been passed down and taught in school.

McBrien said she wishes she could find a way for every student to study abroad. She said she would like to start summer program to bring University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee education students to work in Ugandan schools.

McBrien said there are also opportunities for education majors to gain an international perspective closer to home.

"There is a lot of opportunities for volunteers in Tampa to work with refugees," McBrien said. "There are migrant worker programs here and opportunities like tutoring their children."

Metelus said giving a donation provides opportunities for students to study abroad. Metelus received funding for her research trip from a private donor.

McBrien, who has been to Uganda four times, is completing a book in collaboration with women who made it through the war. The book is called "Cold Water."

"The name Cold Water is a metaphor for something that is essential for life," McBrien said.

McBrien said all proceeds from her book will go toward helping women and children suffering from post-war trauma in Uganda.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081

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