Putting things in perspective

As Australia heads towards the start of warmer weather and into another summer season in a few months time, we begin to brace ourselves for the seemingly inevitable “bushfire” season. In fact, in parts around the country we have already seen bushfires blazing out of control, threatening communities with Mother Nature’s wrath.

I am reminded of one of Australia’s worst fires in recent years known as “Black Saturday” in 2009. With a combination of some of the worst weather conditions ever recorded for bushfire season, approximately 400 fires started on Saturday 7th February 2009. Over 1 million acres were burnt and the toll on human lives and communities was devastating. 173 people were killed by the Black Saturday fires, another 414 people were injured and over 2,100 homes were destroyed. A total of 7,562 people were displaced with entire communities having to be rebuilt.

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In typical Aussie fashion, people stepped up. Volunteers appeared from all parts of the country ready to donate their time, energy, expertise, compassion and materials. It took considerable time, but with the dedication of many, communities and lives began to be rebuilt. The physical and psychological scars will remain with many from the events of Black Saturday, but when the crisis erupted, Australia essentially stopped in its’ tracks and did whatever was needed to help. And I’m sure the response would be similar in many other parts of the world when Mother Nature unleashes her force on humanity.

So, I now question why we seem to not be compelled to respond with as much determination or sense of urgency to the Syrian refugee crisis?

The number of people needing assistance inside Syria is estimated to be 12.2 million. That is the equivalent of the entire population of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Darwin needing assistance. The number of refugees who have fled Syria is estimated at 4.08 million, and literally rising by the day. That almost the same as Melbourne’s entire population. The Za’atari camp is now Jordan’s fourth largest city and “home” to over 80,000 refugees currently. That is over half of Darwin’s population. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian crisis in four and a half years. That’s the almost the same as all of Hobart.

The numbers of people directly affected are enormous. The destruction and humanitarian cost is the worst since World War II. Yet, why don’t we respond to this crisis in direct proportion to its scale when you consider our ability to respond to the devastation caused by disasters such as Black Saturday? Black Saturday was a day that scarred many Australians, figuratively and literally. However, when you consider that the number of Syrian who are displaced from their country and now living as refugees is 539 times larger than those displaced by Black Saturday, why is taking us as a global society so long to respond appropriately to their plight?

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Is it because mankind has created this destruction? Or is it perhaps because we cannot imagine this being our own reality as it is so far removed from what many Australians know? Most Australians who have lived through one summer here know all too well the threat of Mother Nature during bushfire season, and when She strikes, we move in and do our best to protect one another.

Perhaps its time that we absorb the full intensity of the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis in order to better understand the humanitarian void that is desperately waiting to be filled. And it us as a global society who are going to have to fill it.

People helping people – “Roads to Refuge”

This site was shared with me by a family member and it has helped restore my faith in the good that can be done and achieved when people actively decide to help people.

Roads to Refuge is a site set up by the NSW Department of Education (Australia) in conjunction with The University of NSW and the Centre for Refugee Research. There are Education specific programs outlined, but my favourite information was found under the Education Partnership Programs page which contains information about partnerships with universities, government agencies and local schools all designed to achieve specific improvements in the educational experience (and lives!) of refugee children. It shows how sometimes just a little coming from one person can make a big difference in the life of another. And for refugees who may be unsettled and stuck in a liminal space as they try and adapt to another life here in Australia, actions such as these support programs can certainly help ease the ambiguity.

If you are unsure what support may be needed for a refugee arriving in Australia or you are looking to become more involved, this site will offer some practical strategies and links to current programs which may be able to be adapted or incorporated into your own school community.

Happy teaching!

UNHCR “Day in the life” footage of Za’atari

Thanks for this post must go to one of my peers, Hendre Roelink of The Trauma Informed TeacherHe kindly shared a link to a brilliant series of short episodes shot by the UNHCR showing the challenges within Za’atari.

I have posted links to each of the 14 videos to one of my pages, which you can find here. 

I think being aware of the living conditions, the massive scale and rapid nature of how quickly the “city” is growing are key aspects that are communicated clearly through these films.

They also provide a more informed context when considering what role education has within Za’atari for the tens-of-thousands of refugee children (at the time of filming in 2013 the camp population was 130,000 with 60,000 children and only 12,000 attending school).

A day in the life…

I was recently introduced to a moving virtual reality film titled “Clouds Over Sidra” by Chris Milk.  This film lets us walk in the virtual shoes of 12 year old Sidra, a Syrian refugee girl living for the past 18 months in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

To put it simply, the technology used to create such a realistic experience was awe-inspiring. To become totally immersed in this space through sight and sound was somewhat daunting as the enormous scale of the challenges facing our global society suddenly became very real. I would encourage you to view it using the virtual reality platform, even if you don’t have the Google Cardboard accessory.

(Click here for more information about this virtual reality technology)

As far as the eye can see are rows upon rows of caravans, or makeshift “homes” for the 84,000 refugees who lived there when this was filmed. The nothingness of the space was overwhelming – both the natural and the manmade landscapes are almost entirely devoid of colour and “life”. We get to experience Sidra attending school, something she and her circle of friends are extremely proud of. Yet, they walk hand-in-hand along chainlink fences topped with razor wire to get to class. We also learn of the children who don’t want to go to school because they are waiting to go home to Syria.

We see “boys being boys”, still keen to wrestle and fight even after all that they may have personally witnessed. We also see boys having access to computers to play games, most of them combat ones, which must strike a chord very close to their own realities. Yet, we see the limitations placed on the girls who are not allowed to use the computers, but are eager to. However, girls are allowed to play soccer even though they cannot play it back in Syria. But, playtime comes at a cost, as does so much else in Za’atari, as they have to “play quickly” because so many other children are waiting for a turn.

Although there is safety from the war in Syria whilst in Za’atari, this temporary space has become a somewhat permanent home for thousands upon thousands of children and their families. In fact, the children outnumber the adults. For the children in Za’atari, the days, months and years spent here will be part of their childhood. No one is quite sure just how much of their childhood will be spent here. All anyone can agree upon is that it would seem that it will not be safe to return to Syria any time soon.

The Za’atari population try to survive in this ambiguous space where they don’t have a home to move on to nor one to return to. Yet, many keep hope alive by waiting for the day when they can leave. It would appear that a goal as global citizens would be to ensure that the refugees can still fulfil a basic human desire of being allowed to dream and learn and grow whilst trapped in this space.

A point in time will come when people can safely return to Syria. And it is evident by the amount of destruction there today that it is going to require the skilled assistance of educated and experienced people to rebuild communities and lives. So, what is being done to ensure this happens? With so few children regularly attending school whilst affected by the war, both within refugee camps such as Za’atari and elsewhere, we are not providing adequate education for them now or for their futures.

Watching “Clouds Over Sidra” gave me a new appreciation of the refugee situation in Za’atari and of that affecting Syria, Europe and the rest of the world. And it is prompting me to think of what can be done by the likes of you and I – the bystanders who are physically so far removed from these circumstances that we find it hard to truly comprehend that these situations are in fact people’s lives, day after day after day.

I would encourage all educators to view “Clouds Over Sidra” and to consider allowing your students to do the same. It is an experience not to be forgotten, and hopefully one that will spark conversation about this topic that will perhaps lead to positive changes for our global society.

Happy teaching.

Education is key for Syrian refugees, wherever they may be.

I have noticed a resounding theme whilst researching further into the Syrian refugee crisis facing the global community. Beyond the immediate needs for safety, food/water, medical access and financial aid, a major need appears to be that of education.

According to reports by UNICEF, there are 13 million children who are deprived of education in the Middle East, with a significant number of them being in Syria. The relatively small number of refugees who do have access to limited education through the two main camps often have this disrupted as they are needed to work to help support their families.

Teachers in these regions also face enormous challenges. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, 52,500 teachers have left their posts, and those that do relocate often face barriers which prevent them from working. Teachers still teaching face obstacles with language barriers, lack of resources, children suffering from trauma, overcrowded classrooms or schools being damaged or destroyed. Class sizes in one of the main refugee camps, Zaa’tari, can be more than 120 children per teacher

UNICEF has reported that over 8,850 schools can no longer be accessed in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya. These former places of learning have been damaged or destroyed, or they have become places of shelter for displaced families or are they are occupied by parties in conflict. 8,850 schools! Imagine the social, cultural and educational impact that the closure of 8,850 schools would cause in your own country. Even half that number. Even a quarter. The fallout is enormous.

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So, what is being done? What can be done? This situation is one of the ultimate liminal space – ambiguity and disorientation. However, waiting on the threshold for a change to occur one way or the other only appears to have delayed the educational progress of so many children.

Fortunately, even though the future is uncertain and unknown, programs are in place to assess and address the barriers facing refugees regarding education. Programs such as UNICEF’s “Back to Learning Campaign 2015/2016” is providing funding for formal and alternative education to 2.5 million children. This includes the “Self Learning Program” for children who do not have safe access to school. This aims to provide a self-study course to over 500,000 children in line with the national curriculum so that they can keep up with their education despite their circumstances. E-learning is another avenue that is being investigated for its obvious benefits in areas of conflict.

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What should our global goals be as we try to address this situation? UNICEF states the following:

  1. Reduce the number of children out of school.
  2. Support partners and national education systems.
  3. Streamline accreditation and certification.
  4. Step up advocacy to stop attacks on schools and education facilities.
  5. Prioritise funding for education in conflict-hit countries.

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“Syria needs its children to build a better future but education is more than just economics – it is about aspiration, hopes and dreams. After the trauma they have gone through Syrian children deserve to dream of new beginnings” (Chetty, 2015).

Happy teaching.

References

Chetty, D. 2015. The Conversation: Education for refugees can help save Syria’s lost generation. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from http://theconversation.com/education-for-refugees-can-help-save-syrias-lost-generation-48346

Lee, M. 2015. The Guardian – Education without Borders. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/aug/19/syria-refugee-crisis-education-teaching-lost-generation-children

UNICEF. 2015. Education Under Fire: How Conflict in the Middle East is Depriving Children of their Schooling. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from http://www.unicef.org/mena/Education-Under-Fire-English.pdf

UNICEF. 2015. Syria Crisis – Monthly Humanitarian Highlights and Results. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNICEF%20Syria%20Crisis%20Situation%20Report%20-%20August%202015.pdf

Resisting liminal spaces . . .

I have been involved in discussions lately investigating the place and purpose of liminal spaces (specifically in education), particularly in light of the uncertainty surrounding Syrian refugees.

In my googling (aka home “researching”), I came across an interesting article. It wasn’t specifically about liminal spaces, or Syrian refugees for that matter. However, something she wrote struck me as I have been reflecting on what liminal spaces represent to many of us.

Although change is a necessary aspect of growing, learning, evolving and living in general, most people are uncomfortable with it. Change doesn’t always represent something bad. In fact, it can be something wonderful (e.g. becoming a parent).  However, many people don’t face uncertainty with ease. Liminality is defined as the “quality of ambiguity or disorientation” (Wikipedia, 2015) – being on the threshold of something new, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. Ambiguity and disorientation are rarely qualities that one strives for in their daily lives. Most prefer certainty, structure and security, with the occasional “planned” change to liven things up a bit.

However, how do we cope nowadays when we are faced with liminal spaces? As I read this article, I wondered if part of our coping is that we become more consumed with something else instead – “So many experiences. So much we’re doing. So busy our brains. So fragmented our lives and so fluid and so busy. We see too much. So much, it’s hard for something to leave an impact.” (El-Katatney, 2015)

Today, we are able to distract ourselves from reality with just the touch of a finger to a phone.  For many people, this means that we can even steer ourselves mentally away from the uncertain, ambiguous spaces that we may be experiencing. Not permanently, of course, but enough to not be consumed by it perhaps.

But, what happens when you can’t escape that uncertainty, that ambiguity, that disorientation? For many of the refugees who have had to flee Syria for their lives have lived ‘civilised’ lives up until recently. They have had businesses, education, careers, hopes and dreams. They, too, were possibly able to distract themselves from uncertainty a few years ago with their own busy lives. But, when that ability to remove yourself from a situation – physically, mentally or emotionally – is not possible, how do you cope then?

I wonder if that is perhaps why some people nowadays struggle to relate to the plight of refugees and countries barricade borders and refuse asylum in their country? Have we become so used to resisting our own liminal spaces and places of uncomfortable uncertainty that we cannot truly empathise with the situation refugees are facing every day? No one can fully understand the trauma that a refugee may have experienced (or still be experiencing). But I do wonder whether we would be more inclined to show humanitarian kindness if we were more familiar  with liminal spaces ourselves.

As an educator, how does this affect me? Well, I wonder whether we should be encouraging students to allow themselves to be accepting of not having all the answers. To be open to experiencing uncertainty from time to time. To role model to our students that life isn’t a neatly mapped out pathway for everyone to follow like a board-game. To stop and reflect for a moment. Perhaps it would be helpful as teachers to encourage our students to recognise their own areas of ambiguity and disorientation (academically or emotionally); help them identify their feelings towards those spaces; and demonstrate how to embrace that some liminal spaces are in fact the start of something good. Perhaps that would be a good place to start to challenge what seems to be a resistance to experience liminal spaces in today’s westernised world.

Happy teaching.