What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?

 

arrival

One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”

 

Euphemism cannot hide the desperate plight of some children

Is this an acceptable face of collateral damage?

Is this an acceptable face of collateral damage?

I receive regular email updates from an organisation named Team Around the Child (TAC). These often provide useful information about new publications or events related to children with special educational needs, or those living in difficult circumstances. The TAC newsletter and other resources are managed by a man named Peter Limbrick. I have never met Peter, but certainly feel some affinity to his ideas and the commitment that he has given to keeping the needs of children and families in focus for all who care to listen to what he has to say.

Peter Limbrick is often referred to as an activist, working on behalf of children with disabilities and their families, and inevitably at times this places him in opposition, and even conflict with those authorities and policy makers who he perceives to be falling short of delivering effective support and services. Such campaigners are, in my opinion, essential if we are to avoid complacency with regards to the rights of children.

I usually find something of interest in the TAC newsletter, and when one arrived in my inbox yesterday I was not disappointed by its contents. I have made a note to seek out the details of a new DVD about the use of intensive interaction from Dave Hewett, which may well provide a useful teaching resource, and I forwarded details of a forthcoming conference on autism spectrum disorders to be held in New Orleans to some of my colleagues. As a source of such information, this newsletter is always welcome and I have on several occasions accessed useful teaching materials from this much appreciated newsletter.

Whilst the information contained in this latest edition was welcome, it was an item titled Collateral Damage – A Sorry Little Phrase, that grabbed my attention. Rather than announcing a new publication or resource, or highlighting a course or conference opportunity, this link took me to a personal reflection from Peter Limbrick which could well provide a useful source for debate. Limbrick opens this brief piece by stating that:

“The term ‘collateral damage’ is trotted out to make the death or damage of innocent people in conflict zones seem like an unfortunate inevitability. We are invited to think it is much the same as infirmity with old age and disturbed nights with a new baby. We don’t like it but we are persuaded it has to happen”.

He continues the article by suggesting that whenever there is armed conflict it is invariably the most vulnerable and innocent members of society who suffer most. He provides a harrowing example of a five year old child killed in a bombing raid, despite the fact that she and her family had no direct part to play in the conflict that brought about her early death, other than that of being yet another victim.

Limbrick suggests that by using the term collateral damage we are in fact accepting that such tragedies are an acceptable and inevitable part of life for families in war zones. The ways in which we define this term are almost always euphemistic, but Peter Limbrick offers an alternative view in which he suggests that we could well understand collateral damage as meaning

  • Parents who had children and now do not
  • Children who had parents but are now orphaned
  • Youngsters who had all four limbs and now have to manage without some of them
  • Babies, children, teenagers, adults and elderly people who had a complete brain and now have some of it missing
  • People whose skin used to be soft and smooth and is now burned all over and painful
  • Families broken apart, traumatised and displaced
  • Girls and boys who could see, hear, play, talk and sing – but now cannot

This is a chilling list, but sadly it is one that seems wholly appropriate at a time when I am sure children and families in many parts of the world are living in fear as their homes and communities find themselves in the front line of conflict. The debate about military action in Syria held in the UK Parliament last week was certainly to the forefront of my mind as I read Peter Limbrick’s words.

Peter Limbrick’s item in the TAC newsletter is brief and stark. I am sure that it could provide a useful stimulus for further debate, I am equally sure that it will ruffle more than a few feathers. Being located amongst other articles that provide a positive perspective on how greater support can be afforded to  children and families experiencing difficulties, I am struck by the juxtaposition of hope and despair on a page. Let us hope that the former overcomes the latter.

 

 

Can dreams of a better future become reality?

 

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

“It has always been my dream to give my children a better education than me. I had to leave school at 16 because my mother was sick and needed me to look after her.” These are the words of Avine Hassan, but the sentiments expressed could be those of any parent with aspirations for their children to do well at school. Sadly, in Avine’s situation, the opportunity to provide such an education has been severely impaired and this is just one of many stressful factors in her life.

Avine’s words are taken from an article published in The Guardian newspaper (11th April 2015) under the headline “I Never Imagined I’d Bring Up My Children in a Refugee Camp,” in which she recounts the tragic tale of fleeing from Syria with her husband and four children, leaving behind her home, business and all their possessions. Fighting outside of her home and finding a bullet embedded in the window frame of her house, led Avine and her husband to make the heartbreaking decision to leave a home that they loved. Having paid £2,000 pounds to a man who is clearly making a lucrative profit by assisting families like this to cross the border into Iraq, Avine arrived barefoot in a refugee camp containing 50,000 people, though it was built with facilities for half this number.

Understandably, Avine’s children spent a long time tearfully asking when they would return home, and why they were now living in a tent. Their mother now knows that they can never return to the life they had before, as it is reported that their former home and all of its contents have been completely destroyed. It is now four years since they fled the conflict, and Avine’s children have ceased asking about a return to their former lives. They have clearly become reconciled to the fact that life will never be the same again.

In Syria, Avine had run a successful bridal make-up service, and her husband was a qualified accountant. They have gone from a comfortable middle class existence, to one of penury and fear. Their future remains unknown and precarious, but amidst all of this, they continue to see education as a critical factor in enabling their children to find a better path in life. After a period when it seemed unlikely that formal schooling would be possible, things began to improve. The charitable organisation Save the Children opened a support centre, and now there is schooling available for children for six half days a week. In addition there are now resilience workshops established to support children in learning to cope with having lost their homes, possessions and in some cases family members. I am sure that such a centre will provide an invaluable service, but I suspect that many of these children will carry a heavy burden for the rest of their lives.

I find it almost unbearable to read accounts of families such as Avine’s and of the appalling circumstances in which they find themselves. These are innocent people who have worked hard and have ambitions for their children, that have been destroyed through acts of violence and political ineptitude. As is typical of mothers everywhere, Avine’s concerns are not for herself, but primarily for the welfare and futures of her children. She continues to dream and has not given up hope that in the times to come her children may have better lives than they have now. She recognises that education can play a significant role in enabling these improvements to come about. However, it is evident that education alone will not lead to greater stability, and cannot tackle the appalling levels of poverty that have been created through this conflict and many others like it around the world.

Avine’s husband is currently seeking opportunities for the family to relocate to Germany, where his skills and those of Avine could be put to better use. Such a move would also increase the educational and social opportunities of their children and bring new economic opportunities. However, Avine is realistic and knows that if they are granted entry into Germany, which is by no means certain, this will involve a long and complicated process. She may be less aware of the levels of anti-immigrant sentiment that exists at present across Europe, perpetuated by those who cannot begin to imagine the trauma experienced by families such as this.

It is hard to believe that anyone reading The Guardian report could not be moved and indeed angered by the dreadful situation that exists in the lives of so many refugees from Syria. It is to be hoped that the rest of the world recognises the unfolding tragedy and accepts some responsibility to provide whatever support can be mustered. Their own government and those who perpetuate the tragic war in Syria have turned their backs on these long suffering families. There is a strong possibility that the rest of the world may do likewise. Let’s hope that Avine’s children receive the education that they deserve and that their experiences help them to shape a more caring future. The alternative hardly bears thinking about.

 

 

Children: victims in a war not of their making

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

A Report just issued by the charitable organisation Save the Children, which draws upon research evidence from several reputable international agencies, highlights the devastation caused by the current conflict in Syria. The report, titled, The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future, documents the disaster for children caused by the appalling conflict that has been a regular feature of news programmes on our television schools for the past four years. It makes for harrowing reading and says much about the lack of care given to protect the innocent during times of conflict.

The report states that before the start of the war, the majority of Syria’s children were enrolled in primary school, and there was a significant commitment to education on the part of the government and families. Literacy rates at this time were at 95% for 15–24-year-olds. Today, almost 3 million children are out of school and the country has one of the lowest enrolment rates in the world. The example of the city of Aleppo is given where the enrolment rate is shockingly low at around 6%. Furthermore, half of the Syrian children currently in refugee camps are not receiving formal access to school. The report estimates that the cost of replacing damaged, destroyed or occupied schools and lost equipment could be as high as £2 billion ($3 billion). Many of the country’s teachers have been killed or are directly involved in the conflict, and even if peace returns soon, it will take many years to restore education provision to more than a minimal level within Syria. The danger is that there will be a lost generation who have not had the benefit of formal schooling.

Syria is a nation renowned for its literature. I recently read Rafik Schami’s excellent and moving novel The Dark Side of Love, and I similarly enjoyed Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family by Hanna Mina. These writers are articulate and educated individuals who drew attention to Syria for the most noble of reasons. They represent a rich and proud artistic heritage and provide insights into the emotions and passions of an educated and cultured Syrian people. One wonders from where the next generation of Syrian writers, artists, scientists and engineers may emerge. Probably not from a land where the infrastructure, and in many instances the will of the people has been so clearly destroyed.

All sides in the Syrian conflict make claims about fighting for justice and freedom, yet what they have currently caused is chaos and hatred. In the midst of all this, as in all conflicts, there are children who are powerless to effect change, who are denied an opportunity to receive even the most basic education. If as the United States senator Hiram W. Johnson, stated in 1918, “the first casualty of war is truth,” then the second is surely those women and children who will be expected to rebuild families and homes when the conflict is over.

The Syrian writer Maram al-Massri sums this up well in her poem Women like me, where she describes the disenfranchised nature of the innocents amidst conflict.

 

Women like me

do not know how to speak.

A word remains in their throats

like a thorn

they choose to swallow.

Women like me

know nothing except weeping,

impossible weeping

suddenly

pouring

like a severed artery.

Women like me

receive blows

and do not dare return them.

They shake with anger,

they subdue it.

Like lions in cages,

women like me

dream . . .

of freedom . . .

Maram al-Massri

 

The Save the Children Report: The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future can be found at: Save The Children 2015