Schools give shelter too

Fri, 28/09/2018 - 10:45


Education. Schooling for newly arrived children who have had to leave everything behind, often experiencing extreme situations, is a key element offering them safety and the chance to get back on their feet with new prospects for the future.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are more than 25 million refugees in the world, half of them under the age of 18. Unaccompanied minors account for more than a third of those who make journeys alone and are specifically the most vulnerable of all in this humanitarian crisis. The secondary effects from a medical and psychological point of view are multiple, such as the death of parents and guardians, or being forced to separate from them, hunger, a lack of sanitary conditions and medical care, but also a significant risk of missing out on education opportunities.

Children learn, play and develop at school. Their future partly depends on access to quality education. Yet the UNHCR report ‘Turn the Tide: Refugee Education in Crisis’ states that four million refugee children worldwide don’t go to school. Only 61% are getting primary school education, in contrast to the global average of 92%. As children get older, that divide becomes more pronounced, with only 23% of refugee children getting secondary school education and hardly 1% reaching university.

Reaching school

Miqueas Josué (aged 9) and his sister Yeinile Raquel (aged 8) arrived in Barcelona in December 2017 when their parents fled repression in their native Venezuela. The family belonged to the opposition party there and were in charge of a foundation rescuing youngsters with drug addictions from the streets, many of whom belonged to groups known as colectivos. According to the UN, these organisations are set up to implement government programmes and operate security for the authorities, some of them using arms to intimidate and attack people opposed to the government. “We had a lot of problems because many of the lads rescued were in debt with the collectives, who didn’t want to let them go. They threatened us with death and we had various attempted break-ins at home so we had to leave it all and flee in under 24 hours”, explains Josué Salazar, a family counsellor by profession.

The registration process for young child refugees is the same as for any other child, making it easier for siblings to go to the same school.

Once they reached Barcelona, initially staying in a hotel and then in a residence, thanks to help from organisations such as the Catalan Red Cross the young children in the family were able to start at the Els Pins school in the district of Horta-Guinardó. The same applies to Tamar, Levan and Anna, three siblings from Georgia aged 3,8 and 10 respectively. The registration process in these cases is the same as for any other young child, making it easier for siblings to go to the same school.

Last year was the first academic year that the school took in refugee children, swiftly putting together a reception class which they didn’t have before. The school was also quick to provide them with a pack of materials (pencil case, paper, pencils etc.), books (from a pool of books which the school reuses) and folders prepared by the teachers themselves. “There are those who are only here a fortnight, others three months, but we approach it as if they were going to spend the whole academic year”, explains the head teacher, Anna Mackay. At the same time, the pupils are assigned others who act as tutors for them so that they feel accompanied during the adaptation process.

Main learning difficulties

During this process, the language is the first obstacle for the new arrivals, even though this is easy to overcome because of the desire to communicate, helping them to make themselves understood quickly. Their psychological state is more difficult for them to overcome, as we mustn’t forget they’re young children who have not only gone through an extreme situation, but have also left everything behind. “The toughest part for my children was having to separate from friends and family and make new affectionate bonds again in a new country” notes Josué.

The impact of the trauma they’ve been through leads to gaps in various areas of their development, meaning problems with concentration and memory, fear and anger, difficulties with social relationships etc.

According to María Álvarez, a children’s therapist at the Centre Exil, the psychological situation of refugees arriving in a new country “varies greatly as it depends on their previous history in their country of origin”. When it comes to children, “the impact of the trauma leads to gaps in various areas of their development”, such as problems with concentration and memory, fear and anger, difficulties in social relationships, sensorimotor problems and more. The entity offers therapeutic support for victims who have fled wars, including young children who are being schooled in Catalonia. The team at the Centre Exil is made up of professional social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists who deal directly with the young child and their family, as well as training people supporting them, such as their teachers.

Schooling is fundamental, but as María Álvarez points out, if basic needs are not resolved it’s not possible to complete rehabilitation. “These children often live with uncertainties. Perhaps they have relatives who are still in the conflict zone, they don’t know their legal situations, if they’ll be given a flat or not… That’s why it’s basic to provide a safe context (home, school, work) for the long-term, a starting point for them to learn, because they can’t do so in a context of constant alertness and survival”. “My children ended up thinking we’d always be moving on from one place to another. Being able to go to school, to live in a flat, is very important for them because they can see the horizon clearly and that’s reassuring for them and for us”, explains Josué Salazar.

Awareness of pupils and their families

Lizzi, Luke and Niki are three youngsters continuing their education at the Els Pins school this year, but Miqueas Josué and Yeinile Raquel now live in Logroño, where the family has finally found stability. Anna Mackay expresses her regret at how they arrive and leave from one day to the next, often without the chance to say goodbye. The farewell is a difficult moment for pupils and teachers alike, but there’s the satisfaction of a job well done: “It’s a huge learning experience, a challenge for all the teaching staff”.

It’s important to explain to pupils and their families that during the school year children may be arriving who have suddenly had to leave behind their homes, their friends and relatives.

The role of the school as a backbone for the inclusion process also requires awareness among pupils and their families. “This year, we’ve explained to classes with unfilled places that at some point during the year there may be new children arriving and that they should imagine what it must be like to leave behind your home, your friends and your family all of a sudden. We’ve also worked with the parents’ association and they’re all keen and willing to receive these people”, affirms the head teacher at the school.

Barcelona City Council and organisations in this field have teaching materials available and awareness and educational tools for personal development, intended for the civil society in general. The UNHCR is an example and has been running awareness programmes for primary and secondary schools since 2011. Another example are the workshop talks on listening to refugees, which focus on knowledge relating to migration via direct accounts from refugees themselves. Educating new generations on inequality is the best way to bring about change.


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