Refugee blog 1

A safe place far from home: supporting refugee children

31/10/2017

A Place2Be School Project Manager in London shares her experience of supporting refugee children affected by conflict and traumatic events in their home countries. 

During the last decade, the number of children whose lives have been disrupted by war, oppression, terror and other forms of conflict has grown tremendously. For the families who manage to leave, settling down in a new country can be traumatic and full of challenges such as discrimination, adapting to a new way of living, grief from leaving home and fear for relatives and friends who might still be in danger.

Schools play a key role in helping families resettle and are often the main contact and place of refuge in their new community. As a Place2Be School Project Manager in London, I have seen my school offer many spaces to children seeking refuge, particularly those fleeing war in the Middle East, and this has been a learning journey for staff, parents and for us at Place2Be.

The refugee children at my school did not make themselves particularly noticeable by ‘misbehaving’. Instead they stayed firmly under the radar, often with a big smile and impeccable manners, making it easy to forget what they had been through. However, they would suddenly ‘appear’ when they hid under the table after a dinner tray was dropped on the floor or burst into tears at the sound of a balloon popping.

While these children were well-behaved, their emotional wellbeing was of great concern to the school. When some of them started to randomly disclose frightening memories in class, including the killing of family members and public executions  in their home countries, the school and Place2Be agreed that this was not safe for them, their classmates or staff. A special group was set up to provide a safe space for refugee children to regularly share their feelings and thoughts with each other and Place2Be counsellors.

At first, the children were keen to show how happy and grateful they were to be in this country. It took a few weeks and huge trust on their part to admit that they were not actually ok and deeply missed their home country. Using storytelling, images and role-play helped us overcome language barriers and ensured that everyone had equal access to the group, as well as allowing the children to share their sometimes traumatic experiences from a safe distance.

Once it became clear to them that they would be listened to and accepted, creating stories inspired by these experiences became very important to them and they took much pride in it. One boy told a story about him and his brother travelling through a frightening forest, weighed down with possessions and running away from people who were trying to kill them. When they arrived at their home, everyone was dead and the house was ruined. In the following weeks, the group took part in an activity where the children made their own dens out of fabric and shared what made them feel safe. When this boy returned to his story, there was a new ending: he and his brother started to build their own house together and talked about how special their relationship was.

Despite their different journeys, each child in the group understood what the other had been through and had a place to share how they felt. Ending each session was hard, and one boy in particular would start arguments just to delay it. But even though the group was just a starting point for working with these children, school staff told us that some of the group developed friendships outside the safety of the school’s Middle Eastern community and were becoming more confident in class.

Working alongside the school, Place2Be helped these refugee children to be noticed, understood and held in mind. But you don’t need to be a therapist to show support. Whether you’re teaching or looking after a refugee child, the following advice may be useful:

  • Take time to build relationships with families who might not be aware of UK systems
  • Work creatively to get past language barriers
  • Be mindful of telling stories or teaching lessons that contain themes of conflict
  • Look after your own mental health and don’t hesitate to ask for support if you need it

 

For more information and advice, check out the World Awareness for Children in Trauma website, Amnesty International’s educational resources to better understand the refugee crisis and UNICEF’s teaching pack on the refugee crisis.

This blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation. 

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