Volume 18 Number 2
Refugee With Lessons for the World's Teachers
01 April 2005

Stan Hazell talks to Teame Mebrahtu —a refugee who has devoted his life to education.

As Ethiopian Mig jets flew overhead during Eritrea’s liberation war, freedom fighters and teachers gathered beneath the branches of a 200-year-old tree to attend workshops led by one of Eritrea’s leading educationists—Teame Mebrahtu. He had become a refugee in Britain but was now giving something back to his homeland and the wider world of education. His story shows the positive role that refugees can play as they rebuild their lives in a new country.

When Mebrahtu began his career, his country, Eritrea, was fighting for its freedom from Ethiopia—a 30-year struggle which led to independence in 1993 after a referendum. In 1974, after four years as Director of the Teacher Training Institute in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, Mebrahtu was appointed Head of the Department of Education at the University of Asmara. That year a Marxist revolution overthrew the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, and the university was forced to close 12 months later.

Mebrahtu took up a scholarship to study for a PhD at Bristol University in the UK, where he had earlier studied on a British Council Scholarship. He chose as the theme for his thesis: ‘The role of the university in national development’. ‘I wanted to investigate how you make a university serve its host nation,’ he says.

He soon found himself facing up to that challenge in unexpected ways. First, though, an agonizing decision had to be made. He had a call ordering him back to Ethiopia but knew it would be dangerous to return—a colleague at the university had already been killed in the violence which erupted as a result of the new regime. Knowing he had been targeted, he sought, and was granted, refugee status in Britain.

But he declined welfare support and borrowed from relatives to keep himself and his wife and three daughters who had now joined him. ‘I wanted to be part of a solution to the country not a burden,’ he says. ‘I felt it was important to be a contributing citizen just as I would be in the society I came from.’

So he decided to take his passion for education to the places where it mattered—the local schools. He launched a programme to visit schools all over the south-west of England promoting international understanding. ‘I wanted to widen their knowledge of other people’s lives and cultures in different parts of the world and to broaden their horizons,’ he says.

At first the schools were sceptical. But Mebrahtu won them over by inviting the head teachers to sit in on one of his lessons. Mebrahtu’s stories of African animals and the dress and customs of other countries became hugely popular. He got a grant from the Rowntree Trust and was soon selfsupporting. The children had trouble pronouncing Mebrahtu’s name. So he became ‘Dr Tom’. By the time the project ended he had visited over a 100 schools and made many new friends.

It was not long before he was offered a place on the teaching staff of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol. Within a few years he was teaching M Ed and PhD students and had become Admissions Tutor, a role which also involved pastoral care for the foreign students.

He became a trainer for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), preparing young people who were offering their skills—from teaching to building—to help in other countries. He also got involved in supporting refugee groups in this country and abroad.

In 1984 he visited refugee camps in Sudan where he was moved by the conditions. ‘I saw many sad things including a woman having to give birth without privacy or proper medical care,’ he says. When he returned to Bristol he gave talks to local schools. ‘I asked them to consider how they would feel if they were refugees,’ says Mebrahtu. The children responded generously, donating boxes full of spare pencils, crayons, paper and old books for the few schools in the refugee camps.

Those lessons under the tree in Eritrea were also the result of his visit to Sudan. Just over the border from the camps were some of the liberated parts of Eritrea. An invitation from the fledgling system of education within the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front gave Mebrahtu a chance to share his passion for education with his countrymen and women. The outdoor lessons started and before long hundreds of students from what was known as Eritrea’s ‘Zero School’ were turning up. Many had to climb into the branches of the tree to get a better view. The workshops continued for three years between 1986 and 1988.

Mebrahtu was invited back but said he would only go to Asmara, the Eritrean capital. The opportunity came after the fighting ended in 1991 when he found himself addressing 2,000 teachers in a cinema at the invitation of the then Minister of Education. It was the start of a remarkable partnership between Eritrean educationists and the University of Bristol, funded by the Danish aid programme DANIDA.

The Eritrea-Bristol Partnership Programme at Bristol’s Graduate School of Education was set up as a result of Mebrahtu’s work. Between 1994 and 2003 the programme trained 45 educators at postgraduate level in Bristol and has provided intensive inservice programmes in Asmara for more than 200 school directors, district education officers and supervisors.

Many of those who took part in these courses—and in the ones under the tree—are now in senior government positions influencing educational decisions and policies. The current Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Asmara—Mebrahtu’s old department—is among them.

Eritrea is not the only country with which Bristol University has links: in his pastoral role, Mebrahtu has looked after students from over 30 countries. Several of them, too, now hold key positions in the education systems of their respective countries.

Mebrahtu has also organized a series of international education conferences in Bristol on the challenges facing educators in the 21st century and continues to advise countries in the developing world on their education systems.

In his assessment of the link with Eritrea, Mebrahtu offers his students some food for thought which seems to encapsulate his educational philosophy. He reminds them of the need to:

  • Earn your credibility

  • Be a part of, not apart from

  • Reflect before you point your finger at others

  • Be a bridge builder

  • Foster independence of thought

  • With the conflicts around the world much in mind, he also urges students to assist in the development of sound conflict prevention strategies and to ‘be aware of the wide-ranging impact of global interdependence’.

    His pastoral role has meant many extracurricular hours dealing with students’ problems and ‘sharing their joys and their sorrows’. He and his wife Teblez have often invited lonely students into their home. Many have become firm friends and stay in touch.

    Mebrahtu is convinced that good education should take account of ‘the principle of care’. He says: ‘If you don’t find out what is bothering the learner you can’t impart knowledge to them’. It is, he says, often a question of ‘going the extra mile’.

    Mebrahtu has certainly gone an extra mile or two for his adopted country. He takes his civic duties seriously and serves as a magistrate. Some of his countrymen had their own way of expressing their gratitude. They wrote: ‘You’ve been a wonderful, extraordinary teacher. You are our beloved father and brother. You’ve been there for us. We are proud of you.’

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