Sunday is World Refugee Day. Save the Children’s Child, Youth and Schools Engagement Coordinator Elisabeth Fraser, who has worked with children of refugee background for several years, says it is a privilege to have been able to work with Aotearoa's newest tamariki, who arrive with hope and resilience.
As a teacher, I have worked with hundreds of children, with thousands of unique stories. But at the end of the day, kids are kids. They want to learn, they want security, and they want to feel included and loved. My time teaching at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre has been no different. People ask me how I could work somewhere with such sadness and trauma; but these misconceptions could not be further from the truth. To work with children of refugee background is to work with the most resilient of children, the most loving and the most hopeful. They are wise beyond their years, and tolerant beyond belief (of our cultural missteps as well as their classmates). What a privilege it is to welcome the newest Kiwi kids to our beautiful country.
No one chooses to be a refugee, and anyone could become one at any time. The protections and international laws around refugees are there for all of us – to ensure safety for in the event of war, persecution, or increasingly, climate change. Refugees don’t leave their countries for a better life. They leave for a life, they choose life instead of death or persecution. Refugee stories are diverse; they had safe lives, careers, stability, before they were forced to flee their beloved home; and that is what they are searching for again. People seeking refuge love their families and want the best for them, and this shared desire connects us all.
In 2020 there were 26 million refugees, 4.2 million asylum seekers and 45.7 million internally displaced people – adding up to a total of 75 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide (UNHCR World Report 2020*), over half of these are children. New Zealand welcomes 1500 quota refugees per year, before COVID-19 drastically halted refugee movement worldwide. What many people do not realise, is that once a refugee arrives in New Zealand via the quota programme, they are no longer a refugee, they are a former refugee. They now have two homes – the one they fled, and Aotearoa. After arriving in New Zealand, former refugees spend five weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, where they are immersed in preparations for life in New Zealand and moving to their new homes in the community. This is where I taught in the primary classroom, Whare Aroha, a place of love, hope and reciprocal learning.
When Covid halted refugee movement worldwide, teachers from the centre were placed on secondment in schools around the country to support students of refugee backgrounds. We saw former refugee children thriving, and others struggling; we saw children being included, and others excluded; we saw children embracing their home culture alongside their new Kiwi identity, and others being expected to conform. What we noticed though, is the schools that had existing diversity and systems in place to support diverse learners (many lower decile schools), children of refugee backgrounds were doing better. When we authentically support people of diverse cultures, pasifika and Maori, socio-economic diversity, gender and sexual diversity and differences in abilities and medical needs, no one is disadvantaged.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) is an agreement by countries who have promised to protect children's rights and the most widely ratified treaty in the world. Two fundamental principles guiding the UNCROC, non-discrimination and participation for every child, ensure that children of refugee background are guaranteed the same rights as every other child, including an education that is inclusive and supportive of their culture, language, interests and strengths. This is not just a ‘nice to have’, it is their right.
When working with students of refugee backgrounds, I encourage educators to learn about the country of origin and reasons behind refugees fleeing (use the internet – don’t ask directly or you may trigger trauma), ensure everyone pronounces their name correctly, and to be careful of generalisations and assumptions about refugees. Be flexible and understanding of a background you may not be aware of - let your student keep their hat on in class to hide a scar, or wear a non-uniform jacket that perhaps has helped them survive their journey across the world. If they question authority, remember that maybe they became the “man” of the household while only a child, and give them time to learn that they can safely be a child again. Leave pity behind and embrace admiration of resilience, respect and appreciation for the diversity they bring to the school community. Rather than having a unit studying “refugees”, study the concepts of journeys and movement, where all students have the opportunity to tell their stories if they feel comfortable. Read up about trauma triggers and realise how loud noises, uniforms and authority, questioning, movies and novels could be triggering for some students. Be kind, be understanding, be flexible. Chances are, if your school authentically embraces its existing diversity, you will already be supporting your former refugee students and the richness they bring to your community.
As I write this I look up at a treasured picture stuck to my wall, from a former refugee student, of a meticulously drawn map of Aotearoa, with the words “I love New Zealand.” New Zealand loves you too.