Surviving and teaching: the story of two refugee educators from Syria and South Sudan

By Naeef Almezel, a refugee from Syria, and Maurine Kaku, a refugee from South Sudan, both now working as educators for Teach for All Network partners

When you think of the word “refugee”, what picture does it evoke in your mind? Victims or individuals; a helpless mass in need of humanitarian aid, or a people with aspirations? As two educators with refugee backgrounds from Syria and South Sudan, we are all too familiar with the stigma associated with the label “refugee”.  It reconstructs our identities as passive victims without agency, without our own voices, depending on others for a sense of direction. But these labels attempt to erase the unique identities of the 103 million people who are currently displaced around the world.

 

My name is Naeef, originally from Syria and currently living in Sweden. In Syria I had my dream job – I was a music teacher in a secondary school. When the war started in 2011, I carried on teaching and used music as a medium to support my students to make sense of our new reality. When war happens, it isn’t just about teaching anymore, it becomes about resilience. In 2015, I was asked by the military to fight in the war. The options before me were clear: fight on the frontline or leave my country. I travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Austria, Germany, Denmark, eventually arriving in Sweden. Everything was different: the language, culture, politics, and how people perceived me. I had no trust. My journey out of Syria was to restart my life but here I had lost my identity and my personality. I was now reduced to being a number on a long list of refugees

 

My name is Maurine, originally from South Sudan and currently living in Uganda. My parents originally fled South Sudan in 1987, when the war broke out between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the central Sudanese government.  Three years later I was born in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda, where my parents had settled. My father volunteered as a teacher in our school in the camp. Having teachers who were also refugees meant they could relate to our lived experiences. They knew the best ways to assist us. They provided us with emotional support, understanding our traumas and needs better than anyone else. Their presence gave us hope and encouragement, proving to us that we could overcome our circumstances. They taught us that our circumstances don’t define us; they shape us into courageous individuals.

 

The connectedness we both found in school provided an escape from society’s own definitions of our identity. We were called resilient, strong, capable, and that made all the difference. Now we uphold the importance of teachers who look beyond just academic outcomes, but who also develop supportive, caring relationships that focus on the well-being of students, especially those with trauma from displacement.

The research is clear that people who are impacted by traumatic events may externalize or internalize their experiences. It alters our ability to make sense of the world, and how we feel, act, or relate to others. But when we feel like we belong, when we see that people care about us, that’s where change begins. The lived experiences of teachers, like us, who have experienced displacement significantly enhance our capacity to empathize, connect with, and inspire students.

 

Naeef: In Sweden, I knew I could contribute to this new society as I had a useful and tangible skillset, but when you do not speak the language, it is hard to demonstrate this. Refugees have a past, a culture, languages, traditions and skills but this can often be invisible. After being in Sweden for a year, I started working in a school in Stockholm. I remember in the job interview being asked what I could offer. I explained that I share the same experiences and challenges faced by the many refugee students in the school. Upon starting the job, I quickly became a role model for these children, had a deep understanding and empathy with them, and supported them in acclimating to their new environment. It was important for me to eliminate the idea of victimization – from both the students and the communities they were living in.

When I arrived in Sweden, lots of people looked at me as a victim and everyone wanted to pat me on my back and wipe away my tears. Every time I embraced this victim identity, it took away from my personal responsibility. So I tell my students that they are not victims; they can rise above their current status and reach their goals.

After this job, I moved to a new role at Teach for Sweden where I now work as a teacher coach, enabling me to impact many classrooms, students and teachers. Now, I remind teachers that it is not only the Swedish language that is foreign to refugee students, but the entire education system is also unfamiliar to them. 

I visit schools across Sweden, supporting teachers to develop their pedagogy and leadership, and what I see in all these classrooms is that there is no ready-made formula or specific strategy to use with refugee students. Refugee students, like all students, have different learning styles, needs and identities, and therefore teachers need to differentiate when planning their lessons.

 

We’ve seen that when communities view refugees as threats, schools often become tools wielded to purge the ‘dangers’, to ensure the complete assimilation of the refugees into the dominant culture, often without respect for the students’ linguistic and cultural heritage.  Students who come to a new country bring with them different knowledge, fresh perspectives, and a rich culture. This is not a threat, but an asset. This makes countries more enriched with differences and diversity, which in turn creates a kind of exchange and mutual learning among all students.

The beliefs and ideologies of each teacher standing at the front of the classroom are powerful levers in influencing both how and what students learn; they influence who is included and excluded within the structures of their school and classroom.  Through their teachers, students see themselves and their place in the future. So we need to ensure that classrooms are our students’ safest space. The place that builds their self-confidence, the place that welcomes everyone’s differences, where everyone can be themselves without having to hide or conceal their identity.

 

Maurine: As I reflect on my childhood, growing up as a child born and raised in a Ugandan refugee camp, I realize that being in school was a pivotal part of my upbringing; being with my friends; accessing emotional counselling; and slowly achieving a sense of stability. Having teachers who shared similar displacement experiences had a profound impact on me and my classmates. Now, in my current role as a teacher with Teach for Uganda, I give my time, talent, and energy to my students, just like others did for me in the refugee camp schools. As I stand in front of my students, I am reminded that teachers who have experienced displacement have a unique ability to understand the complex emotions and challenges faced by all students.

 

We both think that schools need to better reflect the realities of the students they serve. The fight for refugee education needs to belong to, and be led by, those who are most affected by it. Otherwise, schools and communities risk missing out on the valuable perspectives, insights, and innovative solutions from those of us who have personally experienced emergencies.

 

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