Vidur Chopra: Understanding Education After Conflict & Displacement

Vidur Chopra is a current doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He previously worked at UNICEF to support practitioners in their focus on early childhood development during times of conflict and environmental disasters. His current research focuses on how youth are impacted by armed conflict and how education can play a role in post-conflict reconstruction.

Below is HAEd's special interview with Vidur Chopra.

Tell us about your work.

My research broadly focuses on adolescents and youth impacted by armed conflict and the intersections of youth, conflict and education. I'm interested in examining the ways education can strengthen or sever youths' ties with their home and host societies both during and after conflict, as well as the role young people choose to play in any post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Currently, I'm examining these intersections with a focus on Syrian youth who've been directly or indirectly affected by conflict and are based in Lebanon and the U.S. 

You worked in an Ethiopian refugee camp for a while. What was that experience like?

My time working at the Somalian-Ethiopian border was my first foray into the world of education in emergencies and gave me a taste of what it was like to implement education programs in some of the most difficult contexts in the world. It played a pivotal role in sparking research interests because there's much to be learned about this field. For instance, what language do we teach refugee children and young people in when displaced and affected by conflict? Given that the average length of displacement is now 17 years, where do we imagine young people's futures - in the host country, back in their home country, or in a third country all together? What is the role that education plays when individuals decide to migrate and why? These are all questions and interests that have evolved and developed over time, but find their origins in that initial, formative experience. 

In your opinion, what is the biggest problem or obstacle for rebuilding an education system after a region has been through war, conflict or a natural disaster?

We forget that system rebuilding takes time and sometimes in an attempt to restore some normalcy, we don't check whether education curricula, languages of instruction, pedagogies and other agents within the system such as teachers and school leaders, are conflict-sensitive. Do they mitigate conflict at all? Do they perpetuate it? How do we recognize and value students' past educational experiences when displaced and not expect them to start from scratch when they return?  These are all complex, systemic questions that require deep deliberation and systems cannot be overhauled overnight to answer them all, but at each point we have to think about pathways that allow displaced students to move from the periphery to the very center of education systems. 

How did you get into this work?

I'm Indian but my grandparents were born in what is now Pakistan. During their lifetime, the partition of India and Pakistan was a cause of their displacement when they were very young and they finally settled in India. While growing up, I heard many stories of their experiences and the horrors of partition, and how culturally close they felt with other Pakistanis despite remaining distanced by geography, borders and politics. As a child, I never realized what it meant for my grandparents to be born in a different yet similar land, to be forcibly displaced, and then have to develop new bonds, ties and associations with a new nation state altogether. Reflecting back, I now realize these early narratives sparked my interest in this field and in thinking about the role of education during and after displacement. 

How can we, as everyday citizens, do our part to learn more about these issues and help?

It's easy to be swayed by popular opinion in the media and in thinking about refugees and displaced youth and communities as helpless and apathetic. Even amidst the most dire situations, individuals' agency is a representation of their strength and resilience. My main message to people is: in what you read, the programs that interest you, the charities that you donate to, look for instances and projects that recognize, value and further develop the assets, agency and capacities that already exist within displaced communities. 

Why did you join HAEd?

To find space for interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration, something that breaks across academic silos and brings really passionate people across diverse fields to think, act and do so that everyone globally can realize their right to learn. 

What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in education right now?

The tech field is booming with innovation and it holds enormous potential in thinking about the delivery of education in ways that are borderless. This is very exciting in the contexts of armed conflict and displacement where we see large movements of population. It's potentially dangerous too because sometimes organizations and entrepreneurs believe that technology is a panacea for everything, ignoring the importance of the socio-emotional development that occurs in the day-to-day interactions between learners and their peers, as well as teachers and learners within different learning spaces.

Who do you admire most in the education field and why?

I can't think of one person at the top of my head, but my admiration and respect goes out to all community-based teachers who teach day-on-day in conflict affected contexts. These teachers are not only confronted with their own share of personal problems associated with conflict, but work tirelessly to be a beacon of hope and light to their own students. They navigate great physical danger to show up at schools, or find ways to open up their homes, basements, or even negotiate with religious and community leaders to ensure that the light of education never dims in the lives of children and young people. Their relentless beliefs in the endless potential education holds during such times is what keeps me going. 

What do you love most about being at Harvard?

I totally nerd out in some of the classes here. There was a point where I had to decide my last class to enroll in and that was one of the most difficult decisions to take. I deeply value the relationships I've developed with instructors, mentors, colleagues and friends here who have not only challenged and pushed hard, but have also lent immense support and encouragement to continue maintaining my research interests in this field. 

Click here to learn more about Vidur's work with UNICEF and Save the Children in Ethiopian refugee camps.