In June 2023, USA for UNHCR launched its inaugural internship program. This program was open to college students and recent graduates with a passion for refugee issues and making a difference in the humanitarian space. The program offered interns the opportunity to learn from staff members across departments at USA for UNHCR.
Dheera Dusanapudi was the 2023 Communications team intern. She is a junior at UC Davis and came to the team with a diverse range of experiences with refugee-related organizations, showing her dedication to serving displaced populations. A formative experience has been working with Article 26 Backpack at UC Davis — an initiative that helps refugee students access and store vital education documents while they are experiencing forced displacement.
“Backpack was one of the reasons I chose Davis,” Dheera shared. “I knew already that I wanted to pursue studies in refugee and humanitarian issues. Backpack has given me an incredible opportunity to genuinely create a difference and work directly with students around the world.”
When refugees are forced to flee, they’re often unable to take important documents with them, including diplomas and transcripts. Because of this, many are unable to verify or continue their education in their new country of residence.
The inspiration for Article 26 Backpack came to UC Davis professor Dr. Keith Watenpaugh during research in Lebanon where he met Syrian students who expressed concerns about not being able to access education documents. At the time, these students were being encouraged to return to Syria to get their documents, despite the dangers and security risks this posed to them. In response, Dr. Watenpaugh founded Article 26 Backpack — a secure storage platform that allows refugees to access their documents from anywhere in the world.
“The idea for Backpack came from refugee university students themselves, primarily Syrians in urban and camp settings in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece,” shared Dr. Watenpaugh. “Talking with them and listening to them outline the barriers they were facing in accessing higher education helped us innovate a solution to the core problem of document insecurity with the help of the Ford Foundation. We learned from those conversations that Backpack had to be more than just a place to store resumes or transcripts, but should also foster connections between refugees and global higher education.”
Article 26 Backpack not only functions as a digital platform for refugees to securely store their important documents, but it also offers an opportunity for refugees to connect with school and university staff. The organization works with partners on the ground who help enroll refugee students in the platform. While students are registering with Article 26 Backpack, they also have the opportunity to speak with university counselors who can help them discuss what their higher education journey may look like.
Currently, Dheera serves as the Campus Program Director for the organization, but she previously served as the Communications Director. She has been involved in the organization since her freshman year at UC Davis and continues to be an integral part of Article 26 Backpack’s growth.
“Backpack is a public good that is managed cooperatively and collectively by students around the world,” said Dr. Watenpaugh. “Students like Ms. Dusanapudi who are in a safe and secure environment, work to support young refugee leaders through training, fundraising and development of audio-visual materials. They're part of an emerging, global peer-to-peer network of students building a largely online community dedicated to making the human right to education a reality for all.”
Dheera hopes to find ways to expand Backpack’s ecosystem to support refugee students’ technological literacy. “We've seen when our partners have enrolled refugee students in Backpack, sometimes those students do not actually have a previous background in technology. Something that is very concerning for us is the idea that access to educational documents will become a question of ‘how comfortable are you with the internet and do you have internet access?’ Because that's going to potentially exclude a significant proportion of the world’s students.”
In the future, Dheera hopes to further her education in displacement issues and continue her work in the humanitarian space.
“I want to help improve conditions as much as possible within refugee settlements to ensure that people in those communities are getting access to their services and also living a dignified and secure life.”
How you can help…
Organizations like Article 26 Backpack develop critical solutions for refugees to help them build brighter futures. By supporting Article 26 Backpack, you can help further the work of young humanitarians like Dheera and ensure refugee students can continue their education.