Education Column: How classroom lessons can offer a lifeline to break away from trauma

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The largest refugee crisis in contemporary history is happening quite literally on our doorstep. To put things into perspective, right now there are more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors stranded in the Calais Jungle – that is, under 18-year-olds who have travelled across the entire globe in search of a life away from war, persecution and poverty.

Under the Lord Dubs amendment passed in the UK Parliament, these children should be in Britain, but they’re not. Instead, they’ve been stranded and left to live in some of most heartbreaking conditions one could imagine.

Hassun Zafar in the classroom at the Calais refugee camp

Hassun Zafar in the classroom at the Calais refugee camp

Last year I was one of the elected officers at Sheffield Hallam University’s students’ union, and this academic year I’m completing the final year of a degree in science education. I volunteered to teach in the migrant camp over the summer through the Refugee Youth Service, helping to provide the children there with access to education and a safe learning environment. We offered a timetable for the children, including lessons in science, English, art, maths and French, as well as providing library and study time.

The volunteers in the camp were the most open-minded, welcoming and befriending of people and the teachers are the most outstanding I have ever seen. It was incredible to work with and get to know them.

No words can give justice to the feeling of first entering the ‘jungle’ – this isn’t a squalid tent-site, it’s an entire community, with a population of more than10,000 people who have built shops, restaurants, shisha lounges, mosques, launderettes and churches, normalising the destitution as much as they can.

School is more than just a classroom for these children, it’s a lifeline, a place to break away from all the trauma the world has put them through, a place for them to smile again and realise that there’s still hope for them and everyone around them. Many children still bear the physical and mental scars of their experiences, yet despite everything they’ve been through, they are still able to smile, laugh and show the greatest amount of humour, hospitality and enthusiasm to learning that I have ever seen.

We have to understand that these children are so similar to the children we see in the UK. They’d play the same video games, watch the same movies, love the same pizza, idolise the same celebrities, listen to the same chart music and even be social media junkies too. The difference is, while most of us only experienced it though our TV screens, they have actually lived and experienced the realities of war, extremism and poverty.

We have to understand that the way our government treats these refugee children is a direct indicator of how they’d treat our children if they could get away with it, and that all of us – absolutely all of us – can do something to change this situation and help these children, even when our governments choose to turn a disgraceful blind eye.

We cannot abandon these children. With the Calais camp due to be destroyed within the next few weeks, the welfare, education and safety of these children and all refugees will be thrown into total limbo. Children with legal rights to be in the UK are already dying in attempts to get to the country illegally; how can we possibly just sit back and let this happen?

I hope we can come together and campaign for these children to be given safety and sanctuary here in the UK. They wouldn’t be a burden to us, but a blessing. In fact I sincerely hope and believe that one day these children, the ones who have had to travel the entire globe to flee war, poverty and destitution, will become the doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, artists, politicians, authors and pioneers who will shape and change our world for the better.

And if there’s anything we can do, no matter how little, to help them get there, then we should be willing to do it.

l The Refugee Youth Service is a non-governmental organisation which supports children affected by unplanned migration. The team began with two volunteers and now encompasses child protection and health professionals. Visit Refugee Youth Service for more information.