Refugee Education: Teaching a Kid to be a Kid Again

Special Focus : Displaced Populations: Innovating for Quality and Inclusive Education
Access and Inclusion April 24, 2017

Mahmoud faced the sea again. It was only 3 months after he arrived to the island of Lesvos in Greece, near the border with Turkey. 

“We were 60 people on a boat, we were on the sea for 4 hours and the engine came to an abrupt halt. We thought that was the end of our life”, he recalls. At Pikpa Camp for refugees, Imelda -the person in charge of children’s education-, is certain that playing with water is a way of dealing with trauma. 
Mahmoud’s is one of the many stories that we got to listen when, as part of the Learners’ Voice program, we had the opportunity to volunteer with METAdrasi. METAdrasi is a greek NGO that works in the field of migration and development by providing services not covered by the public authorities. One of their main priorities is the protection of unaccompanied minors that arrive in Greece fleeing from dangerous homes and turbulent journeys.
It is a reality that children and teenagers are on the move. Many of them left or lost their loved ones on the way. As María -one of METAdrasi’s volunteers- says, they are no longer kids; they negotiate with smugglers, cross borders and know what buses to take when they arrive. When did we let them become grownups so fast? How did their childhood get twisted in such a dark way? There is no time for sorrow, the journey has not ended.
In such contexts, activities that enable structured learning to continue despite the uncertainties should be promoted; education must be a priority. Especially when the situation of “emergency” turns into a way of life, people don’t just stay at camps, they make them their homes. In this scenario, formal and informal education can be the only route to make kids become kids again and for them to regain a sense of normalcy. Thus, education becomes remedial because of what they have been through but also protects children as they are still in a vulnerable situation.
As part of the Learners’ Voice Program, we were able to experience firsthand the challenges of re-engaging out of school children and teenagers in education; a fundamental task taking into account the fact that the more they stay out of education, the less likely they will ever return to this path. We were able to witness the gaps in the system and understand how organizations choose to address this issue can make a difference. Education is not neutral, it can reduce or increase conflict itself when choosing how to deal with questions of what, why, who, by whom, when, where and how. Conflict sensitivity is a must when thinking the interaction between education and its context.
In a world that is a product of the movement of people, shores must warm the spirits of those who escape harsh realities. It is not only a matter of values but a matter of responsibility. 
While we play with the children, Mahmoud doesn’t want to sing happy songs because his country is “sad”. “The mouth smiles but the heart hurts”, he says. All of our hearts hurt.