Ashraf Ismail Is Building An Ark For Refugees To Thrive
Helping refugees to not merely survive, but to thrive, Ashraf A. Ismail is the Founder and Executive Director of KnowArk, a project that provides online education to refugees across the globe. It is the world’s first online academy for refugees, offering students an internationally accredited high school diploma as well as access to life skills in over 195 countries. Based in Egypt and the United States, Ashraf was in the Founding Class of the African Leadership University (ALU). He shares with us his vision for KnowArk and his insights into the catalytic power of collaboration.
What motivated you to start KnowArk and what is your vision for it going forward?
I’m extremely passionate about the possibilities that are ignited when education intersects with technology and business, and I’m building on this to transform lives. This is my mission in life, which has manifested through KnowArk. True to the ALU philosophy, I like to do hard things. Currently, just 1% of refugees have access to tertiary education. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has set a goal of increasing this to 15%, and I’m contributing to this vision by enabling at least 250,000 refugees to have access to a quality education over the next 10 years.
By gaining a globally recognized high school diploma, our online academy helps refugees to thrive. We help them proceed to university so that they have better chances at succeeding in life. We also provide access to technical and vocational training for those wanting to learn a trade, as well as language courses for those needing to learn a new language when they are settling in a new country. Our model keeps things at a low cost so that refugees don’t have to shoulder the financial burden that many have to take on when enrolling at online institutions.
What has been the main catalyst for transforming your vision into reality?
Since my time at ALU, I’ve realized that learning does not stop in the classroom; it continues throughout your life. The desire to learn from each other and to constantly give back is so ingrained in this community. It’s been a catalyst for my professional growth and my journey in building KnowArk. When I started this project, I had so many people I could call on to get help and advice in different areas — from tech and gamification to anything UX design related. It’s incredible to have a space where I can tap into the skills and knowledge of my colleagues and peers, and know that I can likewise support them.
I’ve also had access to guidance from more senior members. Just recently, someone reached out to me with a great opportunity to help out on something I’m working on. This spirit of collaboration, of mentorship and of giving back is what I’m trying to replicate at KnowArk, so that many more can know the power of being part of something like what we have at The Room.
Being in the EdTech sector, are you concerned about the lack of opportunities for youth on the African continent?
During my time at ALU, I became influenced by Fred Swaniker’s expectation that each one of us would need to create job opportunities and hire at least 300 people. Ever since my first internship, I’ve been on a mission to fulfill this expectation. I was very fortunate to intern at organisations where I could directly hire people and did the same when I worked at a real estate investment firm, so I’ve already started counting to 300!
This mindset is also what I bring to KnowArk. The question that is always top of my mind is where students can go after graduating from high school. Are we helping them get into tertiary education, which has been our main goal, or are we training them in order to get a job? We’ve now implemented a system where a student graduates with a high school diploma but also has completed some technical and devotional training, which helps them get into the job market and access employment opportunities. I’m focused on creating solutions to help lift the weight of unemployment for those who desperately need it.
What kind of culture are you hoping to create for students at KnowArk?
The same spirit of generosity that we have in this community. I remember meeting Spencer Horne when he came to our opening ceremony at ALU in 2015. A year or so later, I was applying for a social entrepreneurship fellowship in New Zealand and saw Spencer’s name on the alum list. I reached out to him on LinkedIn and he very promptly came back to me, giving me his contact details and letting me know that I could get in touch whenever I needed advice.
At KnowArk, we’re creating a similar culture of collaboration. Our students are encouraged to intentionally support each other by sharing opportunities and guidance. For instance, students who get into grad school share with others how they got there, and those who get jobs at their desired firms share their experiences, paving the way for someone else to apply.
My greatest desire for this continent is for us to start investing in our own people, and it starts with this level of support for one another.