As my students and my own children prepare for the start of their school holidays today and count down the days until Christmas, many of them are busily creating happy childhood memories which will stay with them for decades to come. Friends, sleepovers, family trips, and new toys and gadgets will most likely fill their minds and their summer days. These are things that most of us consider part of an Australian childhood, and many of us go out of our way to ensure our children are able to enjoy their summer ‘downtime’.
I would encourage you all to consider another reality in Australia, of which there are too many to count. The families who are broken and the fallout that the may children experience. The children trying to fit in with a family they may be temporarily living with as they aren’t able to live with their own for countless reasons. The children who through some miracle are surviving in the ‘family’ that they have, against all odds. These children are also part of our Australian community.
But, I implore you to think even further and not forget what we are allowing to happen elsewhere. While we are stressed about Christmas shopping and extra work-demands, there are millions who are fighting to just survive. We have watched Aleppo be destroyed for half a decade, and millions perish either fleeing for their lives or while simply trying to exist. I would suggest that they have become the most visibly invisible population in modern history. We have watched the reports, the live footage, but rarely did we demand anything needed to change as we did in the Paris and Belgium attacks. Meanwhile, we have consciously forgotten Aleppo and the people trapped there and allowed this to happen. (Warning! This video is very distressing).
So, in amongst creating memories with our own loved ones (which I strongly recommend you do!), it really is time to stop the madness and realise that this is a problem that requires the help of the international community, just as we rallied for each other in #PrayForParis and #OpenHouse in Brussels.
I have had the opportunity to revisit the Syrian refugee crisis over the past few weeks for study purposes. After looking into it intently almost a year ago, and then revisiting it in May of this year, it is somewhat disheartening to see that although some progress is being made, there is still an awfully long way to go.
Throughout my latest research, I came across a documentary about Syrian refugees titled “Generation Standstill”. The title immediately resonated with me as it perfectly and succinctly captures the precise dilemma faced by millions of Syrian refugee children. Not only have they lost the tangible and familiar objects of their past, but they are being robbed of their futures as well. Globally, the UNHCR reported just last month that over half of the world’s refugee children (3.7 million) have no school to go to. Adding to the problem is the rapid rise in worldwide refugee numbers, including children. In 2014 alone, the refugee school-age population grew by 30%, meaning that an additional 12,000 classrooms and 20,000 teachers would be needed annually to meet the demand (UNHCR, 2016).
The conflict in Syria has reversed the positive educational trends that the country once enjoyed, with school enrolments dropping from 90% in 2009 to only 60% in June this year (UNHCR, 2016). That 30% drop means that 2.1 million children in Syria are without education. Every. Single. Day…..Indefinitely.
For those who have fled Syria, only 39% of Syrian school-aged and adolescent refugee are enrolled in schools in Turkey, 40% in Lebanon, and 70% in Jordan. These numbers equate to a further 900,000 children accessing education. Every. Single. Day….Indefinitely (UNHCR, 2016).
So, where does education fit in within a liminal space for those who are now part of “Generation Standstill”? UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, states “As the international community considers how best to deal with the refugee crisis, it is essential that we think beyond basic survival. Education enables refugees to positively shape the future of both their countries of asylum and their home countries when they one day return.” (UNHCR, 2016).
One thing that has remained constant over the course of my 15 months of reflecting on the Syrian refugee crisis is the reluctance of many countries to actively work to address it. It is evident that the task at hand is too great for Syria’s neighbouring countries, and some countries have gone above and beyond in terms of welcoming refugees and assisting them to settle, recover, assimilate and start new lives. However, the silence of others is deafening.
There are challenges for Syrian children to attend education. Some are turned away from schools for not having the necessary paperwork even though legislations states they are able to attend. Others are concerned for their safety when commuting through parts of large refugee camps or foreign countries, or suffer bullying whilst struggling through language barriers. Ohers spend their days, seven days a week, being the sole breadwinner for their families, cutting their education short in order for their family to survive. It is time that the future of learning spaces for refugees adequately addresses these challenges. My mentor suggested mobile education – education that comes to the children. Another suggestion I considered was education via television, as many have access to a very basic television, even in some of the most appalling living conditions. Many others before me have discussed the benefits of education via online channels. All of these are worthy of being considered if there is the chance that children can begin preparing for their future again.
So, what can we do when we are not there to help firsthand? What can I do, here in Melbourne? What can you do? Take an interest. As an educator, educate your students to the realities of what life is like for children around the world, refugees and otherwise. With awareness often comes action. We want to ensure that the children whom we are educating today will make informed and empathetic decisions when interacting within their global society. Furthermore, we want the students in our classrooms to understand that refugee education “is one of the few opportunities we have to transform and build the next generation so they can change the fortunes of the tens of millions of forcibly displaced people globally” (Grandi, UNHCR, 2016).
And in the meantime, we want to do all that is within our own power not allow “Generation Standstill” to lose both their pasts and their futures. We wouldn’t allow it for our own children, so why should we allow it for any child, any where?
I have enjoyed being privy to some of the online conversations of colleagues over the past few weeks as they discuss the importance of Learning Spaces for our 21st century students. More recently, their discussion has revolved around future learning spaces, specifically in relation to refugee crises around the world.
As you may be aware, I spent considerable time investigating this very issue last year in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis, with a central focus on Za’atari. This learning experience is something that has stayed with me since that time and one that changed me profoundly. However, I have had the luxury to go on with my every day life and forget that my reality is vastly different from millions of others. I have been distracted with my first world problems without ever feeling fear over my physical safety or long-term wellbeing.
So, what was the point of spending all of that time, energy, and emotional investment on a topic which I cannot potentially impact directly? Well, here is where I’ve changed my thinking – as a teacher. I bring my knowledge of global issues into the discussions with my students. I enlighten my students with another perspective of what day-after-day life is like for millions of children their own age. I do this in order to help them to develop an understanding of broader values such as respect, civility, equity, justice and responsibility. As the Victorian Curriculum states, Civics and Citizenship curriculum plays a crucial role in helping our students to become active and informed citizens and to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to question, understand, and positively contribute to the world in which they live.
I have limited control over the injustices which are in place throughout Syria and beyond. That is certainly not to say that I have given up on working towards them changing. Not at all. However, I realise that some of my greatest power is to have the next generation be more adequately informed on a local, national, and international level. As the Victorian Curriculum states, I know that by ‘investigating contemporary issues and events, students learn to value their belonging in a diverse and dynamic society, develop points of view and positively contribute locally, nationally, regionally and globally’.
I have incorporated my understanding of the importance of global issues and future learning spaces (here and around the world) and applied that in a setting where I can have the greatest impact – with my classrooms full of students. Our students may never physically set foot outside of a 100km radius of their current address. However, the children we teach will soon (if not already) be participating as members of our interconnected global society through avenues such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Musical.ly, Snapchat, etc. My aim is to instil the importance for my students to become reflective, active, and informed decision-makers, both now, and in the future.
Ultimately, I am aiming for my students to realise the position of privilege they are in due to their own global location, and to use that privilege with a sense of respect, purpose, and to become tolerant, thoughtful, and informed global citizens.
Welcome to my little world of big learning through this wonderful medium of the world wide web. My picture of a giraffe (with thanks to my friend Stephen Walsh for taking this fabulous photo and allowing me to share it) is my idea of “sticking my neck out” and taking on new challenges of eLearning. I hope we can learn, share and inspire together.