When I first arrived in Katsikas refugee camp in April as a volunteer teacher, I was yet to learn the weighty elements of this experience that no amount of information could have prepared me for. There was the immediate visual depression of the camp’s conditions; endless rows of floorless tents on a barren bed of rocks, military food rations and access to 20 unsanitary porta-potties for over one thousand people. The sight alone stripped you off of dignity and imbued you with shame: Welcome to the developed world. The only sign of international aid organizations were the UNHCR carpets that tried to conceal the rocky ground of the floorless tents. Waves of children ran around aimlessly, hurling hugs and high fives – had data not been available one could have easily been convinced that they made up 90% of the population.
I came to teach and having taught English as a second language to vulnerable populations before, I felt prepared for the task. My preparedness was soon rendered negligible, as the context I was used to; one possessing infrastructure, stability and calm – did not exist here. The ‘school’, a floorless tent overcrowded physically and emotionally, bred confusion not calm. There were four benches for forty children who spoke four different languages, with no common tongue between us. The forty children fought for space on the four benches, front row being the most contested. Their hunger for attention and inclusion led to fights over space, which quickly escalated to rock throwing, blood spilling and tears. The trauma was palpable.
After hugging the aggressive children into submission, calming the crying children into silence and distracting the calm children with the A, B, C’s, class would begin. Despite this chaotic daily ritual, children came eagerly. Their eagerness to learn and participate outweighed all the challenges. It became clear that the purpose of this ‘school’ was first about the provision of safety and normalcy, and subsequently about learning.
While adequate shelter, food and medicine are the very first requirements in humanitarian emergencies, education must come in parallel. If the former address physical wellbeing, the latter addresses the psychological. With pen and paper you saw trauma illustrated; the boat crossings, bombs dropping on houses, human-shaped lumps on the ground surrounded by red. Nothing was said to prompt these drawings.
In refugee camps, education is recognised as a key psychosocial intervention that fosters mental and physical stability yet only 2% of global humanitarian appeals are dedicated to education. In their definition of ‘quality education’ in emergencies, the INEE minimum standards crucially highlight that first and foremost, quality education, formal or non-formal, must provide a healing environment. Through educational activities students are able to regain their agency, learn how to process their reality, and how to eventually re-engage with real content again.
Making spaces that foster safety and rhythm means having enough hands to handle the daily chaos. Three individuals always had to be present, the teacher, the assistant and the support. Safety and normalcy require familiarity. We the volunteers were not familiar to these children. We didn’t speak their languages and they certainly did not respect us. We saw a niche. The young people in particular were not catered for by regular educational activities, so we utilized participatory methods to enable their inclusion. When engaged as translators, as teacher’s assistants, as coaches, the change in them was transformational, and behaviour in the ‘classroom’ became more manageable.
Deciding to engage them was an ad hoc, by-product of observation, but much more targeted efforts need to be made from the onset, to give them agency and prevent them from sliding into psychological uncertainty. Community engagement is the central tenet of sustainability. To exist meaningfully, these spaces must be developed with and by the population in order to acquire support, engagement and ensure relevance.
I returned to Katsikas in August, prepared and excited to re-embrace the chaos. I walked through the gate ready to submit to the unstoppable mob of hugs and high fives, but they never came. As I approached the communal space I saw five brightly coloured wooden sheds surrounded by a fence, with a big gate that held above it a ‘My School’ sign. They were filled with children.
The “school” had evolved into The School. It was organized into four levels: the oldest were the Blue Hats, then the Green Hats, then the Yellow Hats and the youngest, the Red Hats. There was a teachers’ room where the school management sat. Firas – a 27 year old from Bosra – is the de-facto principal. There was a schedule of daily activities with a broad range of subjects for all age groups. There was a rhythm, which created normalcy, which in turn fostered calm.
So, what had changed?
True, a couple of months had passed giving time for the physical spaces to be constructed, but that’s really the least important element. What had really changed was the attitude of the community towards the limbo they found themselves in. As Jigar, a community teacher from the Kurdistan region of Syria, said,
“When I first started teaching there were kids climbing the tents, they were disrespecting the space, there were very few teachers, I was confused and frustrated, but I thought to myself, should these children not study? Should they not go to school?
A few of us got together to address these issues by organizing ourselves into the education and construction teams and getting people involved, telling them that they need to be involved in the education of their children. We have about 150 children coming to school, if the aid organizations aren’t going to build a school for us, we will build a school ourselves.”
And that is exactly what they did. Recognizing the need for their children to engage in educational activities again, community members came forward to teach the majority of the classes, with volunteers filling in the gaps.
The School is the hub of community life in Katsikas Camp and its creation was driven by the need to establish physical and psychological safety, rhythm and normalcy in an otherwise unstable environment. Such spaces are critical for the development of individual wellbeing, community empowerment, and the nurturing of hope. It is critical that we recognize the role that education has to play in humanitarian emergencies and that of the teacher too. It encompasses the very basic foundations for learning, where a lack of stability and predictability (both mental and physical) are the first obstacles to address. In humanitarian contexts education is falsely viewed as a luxury, but the provision of these activities goes beyond formal education and is an essential basic need for the psychosocial wellbeing of the displaced.