Kiron, educational hope for refugees

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The UN refugee agency says that as of 2015 there are 65.3 million individuals that have been forcibly displaced worldwide, most with little or no access to education.

With limited options for integration into their host communities, both refugee and migrant communities are marginalized economically and socially from their surrounding environment.

When Odai Al-Hashimi first met Vincent Zimmer and Marcus Kressler in Istanbul in 2014, the latter were working on an online open educational system that allowed students to study any topic, without the usual harsh grading or lengthy criteria. At the time, the business partners had no idea their new venture would change the status of education for refugees around the world.

What they would eventually create was Kiron Open Higher Education. It is a Berlin-based non-profit organization that has built an innovative system to tackle the issue of providing higher education to the displaced.

Organizations such as Child Empowerment International and, more notably, Khan Academy, have also taken steps to make education accessible to everyone. Kiron is joining these efforts by becoming a growing player that brings private education to refugees for free at scale.

Al-Hashimi, an MIT alumnus and currently continuing at the Istanbul Technical University, joined the founding team of Kiron to achieve an ambitious objective: provide refugees with free higher education and the opportunity to graduate with an accredited university degree.

The cofounders, from left to right, Markus Kressler, Vincent Zimmer, Christoph Staudt. (Image via Kiron)

The team at Kiron has partnered with several reputable schools and institutions as well as different universities across Europe such as RWTH Aachen University, Hochschule Heilbronn, International Berlin University of Applied Sciences, and Macromedia University to provide students with over 400 online courses covering four major topics: business and economics, computer science, engineering, and social sciences. Kiron's study tracks have been designed after universities such as Harvard and MIT.

Students first study for an average of two years online through the Kiron portal. So far the courses are only available in English so students should have at least a sufficient level of English to follow through the courses, but there are different Study Hubs set up by Kiron to help students with language.

For those with limited internet access those hubs also provide them with internet access in various locations where students can come together to get online.

Through Kiron’s courses, the students gain the skills needed in their fields, as well as a stronger grasp of language. After finishing the online program, their profiles are then sent to various partner universities where students are able to transition to studying on-campus and carry on normal student life.

Since starting in October 2014, the team has established offices in Berlin and Paris, with teams in Munich, Amman, and, most recently, Istanbul. Odai explained that “in Turkey, the Syrian refugees are about 2.7 million and other nationalities are about 250,000.”

Moving forward, the team behind Kiron is on the ambitious path of changing the educational life of refugees. The team has thus far been relying on grants and fundraising campaigns. Today, they are focusing on finding a sustainable revenue model while keeping education completely free for all refugees. Their expansion to Turkey, coupled with their ongoing strategic thinking on sustaining their revenue model, means that the team will have a lot on their plate in the future.

In the meantime they will rely on the what has got them this far: their people. “When you come to Kiron, you see an amazing working environment. People are happy, working on something they love and believe in,” explained Al Hashimi.

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