How Can We Prepare Refugee Children for Uncertainty?

Special Focus : Displaced Populations: Innovating for Quality and Inclusive Education
Access and Inclusion May 19, 2017

As a country, the size of problems within India often mars our perspective on issues that are changing global dynamics. This dawned on me after spending two weeks in Greece learning about the global forced migration and refugee crisis as a part of the WISE’s Learner’s Voice Program. They were the two most intense weeks of my life – emotionally and physically.

The European Union closed its borders to refugees in March 2016 which means that Greece, initially a transit country, has now became a host country for thousands of refugees who were smuggled into Europe. Unfortunately, Greece is not well equipped to take care of the situation even though they received over $803 million in humanitarian aid since 2015 to take care of the refugees.

As a part of the Learners’ Voice Program, we volunteered with different organisations that support refugees and asylum seekers which helped us get a sense of the reality on the ground. I volunteered at Khora in Athens which is a volunteer led co-operative that serves food, provides legal assistance and languages classes for asylum seekers.

Despite the tremendous media coverage of the situation, I realised there is still a lot that’s left uncovered. Volunteering with these grass roots organisations helped us, those who are unfamiliar with the perils of forced migration, connect with the problem on a human level. During those two weeks, I had the opportunity to talk to many young people who were forced to leave school or college because of war. They were uncertain of when they would have the opportunity to continue their education. At the Orange House (another non-profit in Athens), I met two sisters from Syria, Nour* (13) and Yana* (17) and started talking to them because of our common love for Bollywood. I learned that they had been in Greece for about 11 months and had taught themselves English. They were now volunteering their time at Orange House while taking English and German lessons. Their father had made his way to Germany a year ago and they had been speaking with lawyers for a year to fast-track their relocation process to join him. Nour and Yana do not know when they will move to Germany.

As someone who loves children, I spent a significant amount of time at the children’s section at Khora. Although it seemed like a lot of fun in the beginning, after spending more time with the children there, I noticed that many of them seemed angry or bitter. Some of the children expressed this anger when asked to draw. They would either draw a house depicting their homes they have left behind or draw a boat portraying the dangerous journey they took through the rough Mediterranean Sea to reach Greece. Some of the younger children did not want anyone to touch them or come close to them other than their older siblings or their parents.

Many children have been completely traumatized because of war or the journey they have undertaken to get to Europe. These children may have lost family members due to war, or have been separated from love ones on the journey. Some of them were born in refugee camps and do not know what it feels like to be in a secure environment. Most of them are just waiting to be relocated which may take months or years.

Education, in such situations, is extremely important to give these children a sense of normalcy and a safe place to be. However, less than 2% of all the humanitarian aid given is focused on education. More importantly, this education (formal or informal) needs to focus on preparing children to deal with uncertainty. It is important for these children to be resilient and not lose hope. A way of doing this is by concentrating on social and emotional wellbeing of children in refugee camps. This also helps when there is tension between various ethnic groups within the refugee camps. We need to teach children to learn how to deal with their emotions, be empathetic and understand that many people are in similar situations, and support each other in their journey. This kind of education is needed to overcome trauma and deal with anxiety. Hopefully, such trauma sensitive education will help young children drop their inhibitions, build relationships and adapt in their new and changing environments. We need to invest in these children now, before we lose them to the cycle of uncertainty, so that they can grow up to be leaders and change agents for the refugee community as well as for their countries.

*real names have been changed to maintain anonymity of subjects.