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Published in Print: October 1, 2002, as Interview: Higher Ground

Interview: Higher Ground

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Recent headlines have teemed with news of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, ethnic persecution in Chechnya, and civil unrest in Liberia. But in these places and others, huge numbers of refugees struggle to continue their children’s education despite the devastation.

Wendy Smith

Wendy Smith oversees the IRC’s education programs.
—Emile Wamsteker



By the start of 2002, an estimated 14.5 million people had fled their countries, and 20 more million were “displaced persons,” having abandoned their homes but remained within their nations’ borders. Relief organizations such as the New York City-based International Rescue Committee help by providing educational materials and teacher training. 

The humanitarian-aid community increasingly recognizes that school is as important to refugee children as food and shelter, says Wendy Smith, a former teacher who oversees the IRC’s education programs. Her group, for one, has doubled the number of its initiatives in the past two years, expanding to 16 countries. The IRC’s 20 or so expatriate staffers—former teachers mostly from the United States and Europe—don’t head up classrooms, though. Instead, with the assistance of hundreds of local employees, they focus on “capacity building,” supporting community educators who want to reestablish schools.

Teacher Magazine talked with Smith—who spends much of her time on the road, visiting refugee communities from Kosovo to Kenya—about the challenges of teaching kids in regions torn apart.


Q. What are refugee camps like?

A.  Refugee camps really vary based on the amount of support being provided by international and local institutions, the amount of time refugees have been in the camp—have they recently arrived, or, as in Afghanistan, have they been there for 20 years? Typically, if a camp is a new camp with people arriving on a daily basis, life is quite difficult. Multiple families or individuals might live under plastic, tentlike structures until sufficient sheeting and space has been organized for individual family housing. Displaced families seek shelter in abandoned factories, railroad cars, farms—literally anything you can think of. 

Q. In a crisis situation, isn’t education a luxury?

A.  No, not at all. A lot of people view education as a development activity, as something that’s only carried out in stable environments where there’s good governance. But in reality, education serves a really important psychosocial role in situations of crisis. If you look at a typical refugee population, half is children under the age of 18. 

And what do children need? Children need to play. They need to be reassured. They need the opportunity to reestablish trusting relationships with adults. 

Many of these children have been victims of violence themselves, or they’ve witnessed violent acts, and education provides the opportunity to pursue something that’s normal. You know, you get up in the morning, you put your backpack on your back, or you carry your stool to a temporary classroom under a tree. Their parents, in these situations, are often very occupied, whether it’s standing in food distribution lines or trying to build some sort of temporary shelter for their families. They don’t have the emotional resources to give to their kids that a school environment can provide.

And then there’s a protection component. If you look within refugee or displaced camps or communities that have been affected by crisis, unfortunately you see more and more children being recruited [into rebel armies]. You have kids as young as 8 years old being recruited into rebel forces in countries like Sierra Leone. Kids in a refugee camp with nothing to do, they’re ruminating and wondering, “What does life have to offer me anyway?” If we don’t take advantage of that kid’s time, I can tell you that a rebel force will. They’ll go to those children, and they’ll say, “I can offer you and your family riches beyond this mud,” and many of these kids get persuaded.

Q. Is providing education a new approach to dealing with refugee situations?

A. I’d say in the past five years, there’s been a real increased attention given to the role of education in conflicts, whether it be how education and schools contributed to conflicts—that can be certainly a part of it—as well as how education helps the psychosocial needs and protection needs of kids. If you go back in humanitarian history, it’s not that there were never education programs, but what it would typically be is: “Well, OK, we’ll get this community settled, we’ll make sure that there’s food, there’s shelter. Then maybe in a year or two, we’ll start an education program.” And the philosophy right now is very different. You don’t wait a year or two. You start right away, just as you are organizing food distribution lines; you start registration of children, you start recruiting teachers, you begin finding out who are the kids in this community.

Q. How does a relief organization like the IRC get an education program off the ground?

A.  Every conflict seems to be different, [but] a lot of the times you’ll find that refugee populations or displaced populations have already started something on their own. They may not have tables and chairs and soccer balls and crayons, but they’re doing singing, clapping, dancing. When you enter a new situation, you find out who the teachers are in the community. Sometimes you have a lot of highly trained teachers who were displaced. Sometimes teachers were the fortunate ones who escaped and left their communities earlier. Or sometimes, teachers were the victims of violence—they were the ones who were targeted because they’re part of an intellectual elite—so you’ll find you don’t have many teachers left.

You usually start with nonformal education because there [may be] no books, and you’re not going to be able to get books for quite some time. So you bring teachers together and put together an ad hoc curriculum development group, and you just ask them to start writing what they remember. You take what you’ve got, and you move forward as quickly as possible.

Q. What’s it like for the local refugee teachers in the camps?

A. Everything is different for the teachers. They find themselves in situations where they have multiage classrooms. They may have a former child soldier in their classroom. They may have a pregnant girl sitting in the classroom, and that would have never happened before. It’s not the same as it used to be. That’s why teacher training is so important.

We try to work with teachers on child-friendly pedagogic practice—what does it mean to engage with children and ask them what they want, how are they feeling? Kids are not just extra baggage that show up in these refugee camps. They have ideas about what happened to them, on how to make the world better. Adolescents can positively contribute to what is essentially a reconstruction period after a conflict. The training the teachers are receiving—yeah, it’s different. But teachers around the world tend to be curious individuals, so I find them to be a pretty receptive audience.

Q.  Do you find your job as a relief worker depressing?

A. It’s a humbling job. When you go to these communities, you see what people have been through, you listen to their stories, and you recognize in them this resilience, this hope for the future. I know of a couple of kids who actually graduated from our education programs in Guinea and who got scholarships to come study in the United States. Those are the exceptional ones, and maybe they’re not the ones who even should be referred to all the time, but you do have these amazing success stories, even if it’s not always permanent and might be taken away tomorrow.

Q. How can an American teacher grasp what it is like to be a refugee teacher?

A. I think September 11 really showed America that we’re part of the world. Having to respond to the events, having to explain it to their children, American teachers, for the first time, had a glimpse at what some of these refugee teachers experience. 

—Samantha Stainburn

Vol. 14, Issue 2, Pages 10-11

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