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The School House

The long journey from a refugee camp to an Australian school

Children at a refugee camp in Greece. Frederic Seguin/Newzulu

The final year of school is tough for a lot of kids. So much seems to be riding on this culmination of 12 years of study.

When Rema was in Year 12 in an Australian school she found it particularly difficult. She is a very clever girl. She had studied hard and her long held ambition was to study medicine. Her parents, a civil engineer and a physics teacher, are hugely supportive of her.

But Rema’s hard work, goal-setting and intelligence, along with her parents’ professional status and support, just weren’t enough.

War had intervened. Twice.

One out of 3.7 million stories

Rema was born in Iraq, and had just finished Year 5 in primary school when the family were forced to flee the war in Iraq and move to Syria as refugees. She lost more than a year of school as the family sought to find a way to start life over again.

Fortunately the language of school was the same, Arabic, and with help from her teacher mum, Rema made up her missed year of school, and worked hard at high school in Syria. She was on track to do medicine at university. Then war intervened again.

The family fled to Jordan - refugees once more, and, once again, Rema was unable to go to school. She became one of the 3.7 million refugee children around the globe unable to attend school.

Rema’s family was selected to fill Australia’s annual quota of around 13,700 refugees.

The family was provided with settlement support on arrival and they are very thankful to have found a safe and stable haven.

But Rema had to make up yet more missed schooling, and this time she had to do it in a brand new language. She did remarkably well but there just wasn’t enough time time to catch up on all the lost learning, especially while simultaneously learning English from scratch.

At the time, Rema said, wishfully,

“If I could show you what I know in Arabic or French, you can see how much I know.”

She explained her frustration,

“Even if you’re writing and you are trying your best, but then the other Australian kids just beat you because they get it easily.”

There are thousands of stories like Rema’s in Australia, and millions more across the globe. Clever, ambitious kids whose goals and dreams have been whipped away from them by events they have no part in.

The average years in exile for refugees has soared beyond 20 years, and education opportunities are so poor that only 22% of refugee children receive any secondary education.

Education for refugees in Greece

Recently I visited one of the many refugee camps in Greece. These housed around 60,000 refugees who were headed for northern Europe when Europe’s borders closed last year.

YouAmI set up preschool language classes in the Greek camp using a donated portable building. Author provided

Originally just transiting through Greece, they are now trapped there in makeshift camps.

Greece is struggling to cope with its own poverty crisis so there are real limits to the kind of settlement services they can offer.

Abandoned toilet paper factories and disused munitions sites do not easily convert to comfortable living space for hundreds or thousands of people.

Nonetheless, Greece has opened its public school system, up to Year 9, to the thousands of children in the refugee camps. This year children have been bussed to the nearest local schools to do intensive Greek classes in the afternoons, in preparation for full integration of the children into the mainstream school system in September.

It is a laudable move, but it is not without significant challenges.

Right wing political groups are already actively picketing some schools demanding the removal of the refugee children.

Greek parents in the local communities are worried about what the consequences will be for their own children’s learning. Many of the camps are in rural areas, so the refugee children will be attending small village schools which have had no experience of migrants.

Greek teachers are concerned about their own ability to work effectively with children who have had disrupted schooling, traumatic experiences, limited school language and who are living in very difficult and impoverished circumstances in the camps. They have never had to do this before and have no training.

These are not dissimilar to the challenges faced by most countries hosting and educating refugees - even wealthy countries like Australia.

Solutions for a global challenge

At the heart of the solution is ensuring these children have access to excellent language programs, both to support the maintenance of their mother tongue and to support them in the languages of education and employment in their hosting or settlement country.

Training must be provided to teachers to prepare them for teaching children who do not speak the language of the school, who have had traumatic experiences, disrupted schooling, and are likely to be living with extreme financial stress.

With access to coherent and quality education programs, that respond to their life experiences, these children can continue on their journey of resilience and achievement - to the benefit of us all.

In my future, I know I want a doctor like Rema by my side when I am in need of an intelligent, persistent and focused health professional. A woman who has seen the world from all sides and has still decided she wants to be on humanity’s side.

Rema is a pseudonym. She was a participant in a larger research study of the educational experiences of refugees.

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