Teaching and Learning with Refugee Children and Teenagers on Chios

by Elena Natale

Elena is a teacher and educator from Italy. She volunteered on the Refugee Education Chios project from 17th September to 17th December 2017. You can download her full reflections here.

The difficulty of putting my experience in Chios into words is overcome by the urge I feel to speak up. Volunteering for three months for Refugee Education Chios, I had the pleasure of meeting many individuals and hearing their stories. I now feel a duty to generate curiosity and interest in these stories and share what I have learned.

During the first few days of my time in Chios, I was flooded with contradictory feelings; excitement to get to know the children and fear at how to overcome the barriers between us. I worried about settling into a new place, and ad- justing to this new life. All these feelings quickly took a backseat as I started sharing my days with the children.

“Choose connection over perfection.” – Julie Hanks

At first, my focus was to try to get through the day as smoothly as possible. I would try to keep the children engaged and prevent outbursts of negative energy in the form of panic attacks, violence, withdrawal, and other manifestations I had not yet come across.

The ‘perfectionist’ teacher in me was determined to engage the children, without too much disruption, in learning through the super creative lessons I had planned out. This goal soon disappeared as I realised that the children’s needs could not be met through traditional educational practices. Instead, I saw that through their occasional ‘shocking’ behaviours the children were calling out for recognition and support. They needed a safe space where they could be themselves and build spontaneous relationships, which they maybe lacked in their daily life in the camp.

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Recognising this changed my whole approach to the experience. My own personal goal became that of trying to transform my classrooms into small communities for, and of, children. I took the time to observe the children, their interactions with each other and with us volunteers, and get to know them through play. I started to introduce some routines and structures that challenged the children to work together, to listen to each other, to share something about themselves, and to take responsibility of their own learning.

This was a challenge for all of us, children and teachers alike, that did not come without difficulties, but the feeling of trust in each other became the connecting force that we relied on to welcome and address the days with open arms.

“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” – Pooh

As the days passed, we would take steps forwards and backwards in relation to our daily achievements, but there was never a single day I did not feel personally satisfied with what we had accomplished. There was never a day we did not end with a smile and our hands raised in the air, like strong teams do, in recognition that the experiences we had lived had been common to all of us.

Some days, the achievement was keeping all the children in a class, or receiving an excited hug from a child on the way into school or after a long day. Other days, it was seeing children express their needs and communicate through drawing or some form of language. I was delighted by the children’s landmarks of growth: saying please and thank you not just to teachers but to each other; offering to clean up the classroom to the sound of Despacito; a group made up of all different nationalities playing UNO together; a class holding hands together; a whole class dancing salsa together, irrespective of gender, race or any other category; a whole class agreeing both verbally and with their actions that differences between individuals are good and make us strong.

The list of what I call GOLDEN MOMENTS is never-ending. The point is that, with the right support and guidance, so many of the students were able to unleash their inherent force and energy that derives simply from being the children they are.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can choose to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

Sometimes, my feelings of satisfaction were shattered when we arrived in Vial camp and the crude reality that the children lived in emerged right in front of our eyes. This had a profound effect on the volunteers, but clearly had the greatest impact on the children who would quickly change their behaviour and attitudes. It felt as though suddenly everything that had been built up in the classroom crumbled as the children prepared to go into ‘survival mode’.

Seeing this from the outside definitely gave me a clearer understanding of the startling behaviour that some children manifested in school, and helped me to become aware of the nature of the big beast we were trying to fight against everyday. Though I never imagined I could fix the situation completely, seeing it made me more determined to continue my work with the children in a spirit of flexibility, open-mindedness and sensitivity.

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” – Malala

The children themselves were a huge source of inspiration to me, and they fuelled my determination. I came across this quote, which immediately made sense to me: “Our children can be our greatest teachers if we are humble enough to receive their lessons” – B. McGill.

The children I was working with had been through so much in their lives and had so much to teach us. There wasn’t one day I didn’t learn something from them. Each child had something to teach me about resilience, or how to adapt to new situations and people, or how to express oneself non-verbally.

They showed me how to learn from the simplest and smallest of things, and how to be creative whatever the circumstance.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Another key part of my experience was the team of volunteers and co-workers. Each of us had arrived in Chios for a different reason. We’d lived quite diverse experiences and therefore brought with us a different repertoire of skills and knowledge.

However, we were all linked by one feeling: a love for humanity which manifested itself in a passion for education in its many forms. This helped create a community of enthusiastic and reflective individuals, ready to share knowledge, skills, experiences, and emotions with each other and with the students. Though I arrived worrying about being with people I didn’t know, I quickly saw that living and sharing everything with the team was key to feeling energised, supported, and understood. They encouraged me to not be afraid to be myself, and to channel my energy into the work we were so invested in.

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” Mother Teresa

If you asked me which part of the experience I loved the most, I would struggle to give an answer that would do justice to all the people I had met. I had the honour to work with and learn from so many individuals, be they volunteers, children, teenagers or other young adults.

However, I can confidently say that I take with me a plethora of golden moments: moments that are more valuable than anything tangible; moments filled with human emotion, and with deep connection to others.

If you asked me what I learned from this experience, I would say this: no situation or hardship can rob someone of their smile or feeling, especially not a child’s. Therefore, connecting to others through shared human emotion is the key to unlocking relationships with people from all backgrounds.

I have come to think that trying to understand the experiences of refugees is like fighting a los- ing battle. Instead, it is more powerful to build connections through empathy, and commit to opening up a space for individuals to become storytellers of their lives. As Socrates famously said: “I know that I know nothing”; it is clear to me that there is always more to learn, and that, if one is open to accepting this, then this journey can become the most exciting and important one of our lives.

I hope this summary will inspire and provoke your thoughts: “Education is a lifelong journey” – J.Dewey