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The right to education: Refugees running their own school in Indonesia

Three men pose in front of a graffitied wall
Jolyon Hoff, Khadim Dai and Muzafar Ali became fast friends.

Supplied: Jolyon Hoff

An unlikely friendship between an Australian filmmaker and a group of Afghan refugees has inspired a new approach to the education of displaced people in Indonesia.

The building that houses the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre used to be a guesthouse. It had been disused and neglected for some time — it now hums with activity and the sounds of children playing.

But it all began with an Australian's impulsive decision to meet a refugee.

Children play outside a two-storey house that has been converted into a school.
The Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre in Indonesia.

Supplied: Muzafar Ali

When filmmaker Jolyon Hoff decided to head up to Cisarua, a mountainous district outside Jakarta in Indonesia, he wasn't sure what he'd find.

"I was living in Jakarta with my wife and I realised that for 10 or 15 years I'd been hearing endless stories about refugees and people on boats," he explains, "and I realised I'd never actually met a refugee in my entire life."

"So, I looked online and I worked out where the staging post for all the boats to Christmas Island was, and one day I just drove up there."

As he and his driver circled Cisarua, "the driver pointed and goes: 'There! There! That's a refugee!'." Unsure what to say, he stuck out his hand and said: "Hi, I'm Jolyon. I'm an Australian."

An Afghan returns home

One of the refugees he met in Cisarua was Muzafar Ali, an Afghan Hazara. The Hazara people are an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan, and face persecution by the Taliban. When Afghanistan was under Taliban control, many Hazara — including Muzafar's family — fled to Pakistan and settled in the city of Quetta.

But when the Taliban began crossing the border into Pakistan after the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan, Quetta was no longer safe either.

In 2004, as attacks on Hazara people in Pakistan increased, he returned to Afghanistan to help rebuild the country of his birth. But the scars of war were everywhere. "I was thinking, 'where did I come? Can I live here? Is it my country or not?'"

In this war-torn country, Muzafar found solace through his camera, documenting the people and the landscapes of his homeland and sharing them online. He gained a following on social media, particularly among displaced Hazara people.

Two people stack hay on a donkey's back in front of a desert mountain rage. Another person with a donkey is seen behind them.
Muzafar Ali's photographs of Afghanistan were shared around the world.

Supplied: Muzafar Ali

Muzafar was working with the United Nations to disarm regional commanders, leaving him vulnerable.

"Living in Afghanistan was not safe at any point. In 2005, as soon as I got my job, my car was hit by a landmine

"I was receiving threats," he says. "Even from the government officials, because they were also affiliated [with] those commanders."

In 2012, now married and a father, Muzafar was convinced he had to leave. He and his family made their way to Indonesia.

The filmmaking refugee

Muzafar's photographs made an impression on Khadim Dai, a young Hazara boy growing up in Quetta. His family had also left Afghanistan when he was very young. "I knew [Muzafar] through his photographs," Khadim says. "[It was] the country that I never see — all those beautiful mountains."

When he was 16, Khadim's school was bombed by terrorists. "A lot of my friends got killed," he remembers. His older brother and sister had already resettled in Australia, and Khadim decided it was time to join them. He left his mother and the rest of his family in Quetta and found a route to Indonesia.

An aspiring filmmaker, Khadim documented his experiences on his mobile phone. He continued to document his and other Afghans' experiences after arriving in Cisarua.

Children play around a man crouched by a camera on a tripod.
Khadim Dai filming for Jolyon's documentary, The Staging Post.

Supplied: Muzafar Ali

Khadim made several aborted attempts to take a boat to Christmas Island. But when the Rudd Government announced that asylum seekers arriving by boat would never be allowed to settle in Australia, Khadim's sister called him from Australia and told him to stay in Indonesia.

Asylum seekers in Indonesia register with the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) and then wait well over a year to have their status determined. During a visit to the UNHCR office in Jakarta, Khadim spotted Muzafar Ali's daughter playing beside the queue — he'd seen her picture online.

Khadim picked out Muzafar from the crowd and introduced himself. The pair quickly became friends.

A creative connection

When Jolyon Hoff met Muzafar, Khadim was with him. Jolyon was impressed. "I saw this footage of Khadim's and I was like, 'Wow!' This 17-year-old kid on his mobile phone had got this authentic, intimate, inside footage of life as a refugee in Cisarua," he says.

"I think that very day … we connected on a creative level and we decided to start a project together."

They first began making short films together and posting them online. Then Jolyon began documenting their time together for a potential feature film project. Eventually, the three of them and Jolyon's wife Caroline began to discuss something bigger.

Muzafar and Khadim had been toying with the idea of creating an organisation to assist asylum seekers with their applications and approached the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with a plan. After receiving no response, they went back to the drawing board.

"Then one thing came up," Jolyon says. "They were like: 'Well, there are all these kids that are missing out on education. We'd like to do something for them.'"

Asylum seeker children are not allowed to attend school in Indonesia. They can once they're determined to be refugees, but language and cultural barriers deter many from enrolling. So they decided to open their own school.

Young boys and girls do schoolwork in a small classroom. A teacher in a headscarf corrects their work in the corner.
Children attend a class at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre.

Supplied: Muzafar Ali

The idea didn't immediately have the support of the community. Many asylum seekers feared they would jeopardise their applications for refugee status if they were seen to be gathering in groups or working, even as volunteers. "[At the UNHCR] there was a notice," Muzafar explains.

"It stated that refugees are not allowed to get involved in any activities. So, they believe they're not allowed to socialise with each other."

But Muzafar was determined.

"We are refugees. We don't have legal status, we cannot work, but it doesn't mean we cannot socialise, we cannot get education or we cannot give education."

So Jolyon and Caroline rented a building in Cisarua, Muzafar and Khadim gathered a group of volunteer teachers from their community and the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre was born.

Growth and change

After a few weeks, the school was at capacity. They soon moved to a larger building, and began working to make the school sustainable.

A non-profit was set up in Australia to fundraise, and donations of books and equipment poured in. Academics and educators began visiting the school on a regular basis. The Australian Education Union (AEU) used their International Trust Fund to send teachers to Cisarua to mentor the volunteers.

Three children sit on the grass under a stack of umbrellas.
Children play outside the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre on a wet day.

Supplied: Muzafar Ali

In addition to providing education, the centre also brought together a community that had previously been afraid to engage with one another.

That fact became clear to Muzafar on the emotional day he left Cisarua, having been accepted for resettlement in Australia.

"I remember the early days when people … were living like strangers, they were living like individuals," he says. "[But] the day when we were leaving Indonesia, it was so emotional … when they were saying goodbye to you."

Khadim was resettled, too. His first choice was Australia, to rejoin his brother and sister, but his offer came from the US. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he's working on his first feature documentary. A souvenir he took with him was a brochure distributed in Indonesia by the Australian Government bearing the slogan: "No way. You will not make Australia home." The brochure aimed to deter asylum seekers from getting on boats.

"I didn't get any direct rejection from Australian embassy … but that brochure is like a direct rejection," he says. "The time when I wanted to be with my family … they didn't allow me to make Australia home."

A young girl holds up a piece of paper with English words on it. Other children work in the background.
Children practice English at the Cisarua Refugee Learning Centre.

Supplied: Muzafar Ali

Muzafar is studying and building a new life for himself and his family. This has been particularly important for his four-year-old daughter: "I feel myself one of the very lucky people to come here, because [recently] I found that my daughter has hearing problems. She is hearing impaired. When she came here she made friends for the first time in her life.

"Now she's going to school, she's learning Auslan, the sign language, and also she's learning to speak, so I'm really happy and feel lucky that I came here."

From different parts of the world, Jolyon, Muzafar and Khadim continue to support the school. And they've witnessed much change. The UNHCR has recently changed their advice about engaging in activities, and several other refugee-run schools have popped up in the area.

The Staging Post, Jolyon Hoff's film about the community in Cisarua, will have its first public screening in Melbourne on June 18, the first day of Refugee Week 2017.

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