A Compassionate Education

DSCN0541Since I returned from Kakuma refugee camp last year, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how we educate young people to care about and be equipped with the skills to find solutions to the complex issues of population movements in the world. For what is the purpose of education, if not to make the world a better place? In order to achieve that, we need to move beyond a knowledge rich curriculum to one that places moral, social and global issues at its heart, with a pedagogy that encourages deep thinking, empathy, autonomy and problem solving. Knowledge has a role to play in such a curriculum, but it is not the end point: it is a part of the journey.

When I returned from Kakuma, I had a Skype conversation with the head of an International School in Hong Kong, Richard Parker. He was about to move to take up a new post at the International School of London (Woking campus), and moved by the Kakuma blogs, he wanted to work with me to develop an event at his school to advocate for the rights of refugees. We planned a three day experience for students called “Forced to Flee” and yesterday they performed their learning in a moving and thoughtful presentation in front of the refugees who had helped them to understand what it was to have no choice but to leave everything you’ve ever known behind.


Ahmed told the children his harrowing story, showing them images of his devastated home town. Coming from a middle class family, he’d had a great life in Syria, with a bright future. Then the Arab Spring started to bubble up and young people in Syria, disillusioned with their government, started to protest, peacefully, for democracy. Their protests were put down quickly and brutally. He recalled a day where 35 young people were gathered in the square at the insistence of the authorities, in front of their parents and neighbours and were executed as an example of what would happen to any protesters in future. Their heads were hung around the city and anyone who attempted to remove them was shot. Quickly, war broke out. He found himself standing between radicals, rebels and regime, damned if he joined one, damned if he didn’t. For many young men, under pressure to choose a side, the only way to stay alive was to get out. He began to volunteer with the UN as his city collapsed into rubble and eventually made his way, with thousands of other Kurdish Syrian refugees, to Iraq where he volunteered for the UNHCR to help with new arrivals. Then one day, ISIS attacked them, forcing the refugee population and Iraqi Kurdish Yazidis up into the mountains.

Starving with no water, people began to die. Mothers, giving birth to still born babies, or newborns that survived just hours or days, had nowhere to bury them. The ground was too hard and stony. The only option was to throw the bodies of the dead off the mountainside. It was weeks before the UN started dropping emergency food supplies. And even then, the parcels fell on the people, killing them as others scrambled for their contents.

Ahmed returned to Syria, but the war had escalated even more – life was impossible and so he decided to try to cross the border into Turkey. It was closely guarded by Assad’s troops who had orders to shoot anyone trying to cross. Only for ten minutes, around midnight, was passage possible when, for some reason, the lights were out. The crossing involved a river – you had to be fast. At the ten minute point, the lights would come on and snipers would pick off the refugees still trying to cross. Mostly women and children, because they were slower.

He had not realised, as a Kurdish Syrian, how hostile the Turks would be to him. Attacked again, he became increasingly desperate to get as far away as possible. He continued to work with the UN helping as many people as possible while he waited for his opportunity.¬†Elsewhere, ISIS were taking young women and girls and imprisoning them as sex slaves. He recounted how in one rescue operation, a 12 year old girl had been smuggled over the border into Turkey and the German authorities had agreed to take her in as part of a deal with the UNHCR. Ahmed had helped the girl, arranging her flight and putting her up in a hotel the night before she was due to go to start her new life. She had been taken by ISIS two years before after her parents had been killed in front of her eyes. Then 10 years old, she had been repeatedly raped. Now she was safe. But she committed suicide in her hotel room before her flight. She couldn’t trust anyone.

Ahmed was distraught. Turkey was a dangerous place for Kurdish people. Refugees lived in terror of ISIS raids over the border into neighbouring counties. Nowhere felt safe. His only other language was English – he had heard that the UK was a kind and tolerant society. His language skills were good. It made sense to come here. He had money – his family had been wealthy enough for him to be able to pay smugglers to get him across to Greece. A terrifying boat ride with 88 people in a dinghy designed for 20, and he was there. And there were no shortage of smugglers on the other side willing to take his money for fake documentation. The trick was to tell them only that you wanted to stay in Greece. If they thought you wanted to go further, they would assume you had more money, kill you and take your remaining cash and possessions. Every step is fraught with danger.

It was in Calais that he almost lost hope. It seemed impossible to get across the channel. Conditions in the jungle were horrendous. Smugglers were ruthless – they knew that these people, having made it so far, were going to do anything and pay whatever they had, to make the crossing. Why? Some had family in the UK. Others thought that being able to speak English would make building a new life easier. Most believed that the UK was a kind and decent society. That they would finally feel safe. Eventually, he found someone prepared to take him, in a truck full of flour with six other people. They quickly realised that they were in danger. The flour came up to their chins and they started to choke and suffocate. The driver refused to let them out, ignoring their cries that they were dying. He drove off and hours later, dumped their unconscious bodies on the Italian border. He was alive, barely, but miles from where he had hoped to be. When, months later, he finally made it into the UK and his phone lit up with the message “welcome to the UK” he fell to his knees with gratitude and relief. Now he has to fight to stay.

Hearing his testimony and seeing this beautiful, witty, engaging and kind human being unfold tales of unimaginable horror had a profound effect on the students. These are fairly privileged pupils – international schools are private schools and the other participants were from Wellington College. The two state schools who had signed up to take part pulled out the day before. They were unwilling to release staff to accompany children in one case, and in the other, realised that some of the pupils who wanted to come had a mock exam on Monday. They wouldn’t allow them to participate – they wouldn’t have missed the test, but the school felt they ought to be revising over the weekend for this pretend test. Sigh. Nevertheless, the remaining students there were shocked and appalled at the treatment of this man and wanted to find a way of communicating their understanding. They had also heard from a teacher who had fled the siege of Sarajevo in 1992 and whose tales of inhumanity and suffering were equally troubling. They talked and explored ideas and created a piece of theatre to communicate their message to a packed audience (forced to sit, crowded onto mats the size of the average dinghy crossing the Med). Being a refugee is not a choice. Caring for refugees is a responsibility. It was that simple. But they found a myriad of beautiful ways to communicate it. Through the design of their set:


To the songs and poems they wrote and the movement sequences they performed. Their parents were blown away.

And it doesn’t end here. The pupils have committed to return to school and run assemblies and fund raisers. To spread their message far and wide. They will stay in touch with Ahmed and other refugees in the local community to work out what they can do to help. They’ll return for a bigger and better event next year – hopefully one that will draw in the state sector. So if you’re in the London/Woking area and are interested in becoming involved, get in touch. This is education. Not mock exams.