‘The soil & the roots of the tree keep me from being knocked over’ – Being a child, a refugee & a young interpreter.

In a recent blog post, we discussed how difficult it is to start a new school when you don’t share a language. But what about when you have recently arrived as a refugee following a harrowing and distressing journey to the UK? This is, and will continue to be the reality for many Syrian children, who over the course of the next few years will be starting school in Britain.

people-218790_640With recent events, Syrians have become the largest refugee population in the world. The U.N. reports that more than half of all these refugees are under the age of 18, and most have been out of school for months, if not years. With this displacement, comes confusion and fear for younger children who lack the security of a stable home. For older children there comes extra responsibility such as being forced to find work and looking after their family in fraught conditions.

When these children eventually do begin a new school, learning the new language becomes paramount. Some, in the UK will go on to learn English and interpret for family members. Other families will already speak English, but children will play a role in translating culture and norms in a new setting. All of this will take place alongside the many complexities they have had to deal with to reach the new country.

The role of young people in settlement is central and often overlooked. In our research, we focus on the important work young interpreters do for their families. Some of the young interpreters we have spoken to, were also former refugees coming from war torn regions such as Afghanistan. One such young boy shared with us how he experienced intolerance at school as a result of UK troops fighting in the war and associated negative media coverage. This, he told us, added to the challenges of moving to a new country.

In trying to further pinpoint these challenges, the charity MercyCorps, recently asked 150 Syrian youth and host community residents to draw and photograph images reflecting their daily routines, challenges they face and future goals.  Children’s creations were around 4 main themes: loss, homesickness, isolation and determination. Images included those of derelict buildings, chains, and cemeteries symbolising loss, but also of flowering buds, trees and the horizon, symbolising hope and the ability of children to maintain determination. Similarly, in our project, we plan to use creative and artistic methods with our young interpreters to enable them to communicate their experiences and identifications in different ways, unconstrained by language.

We end with an image from the MercyCorps project, made by a young Syrian refugee demonstrating resilience through the odds. They explain.YouseffTree

It’s a very small drawing but it has a big meaning. This tree represents me. The wind, the lines to the right of the tree, represent the things that keep me from who I want to become in life. While this wind can blow the leaves from my branches, you see them here falling to the ground, it cannot knock me over. The soil and the roots of the tree keep me from being knocked over.”

Starting School

“I cried every morning because I didn’t want to do to school”: How it feels to start school when you don’t share the same language and you can’t communicate…

Starting a new school is often nerve-wrecking for most children. Sometimes feelings of nervousness are paired with feelings of excitement. But imagine how it would feel to start a new school without be able to communicate with anyone else. One might imagine that those feelings of nervousness would be compounded ten-fold. At least if you speak the local language you can ask where the toilet is, or how to get to your next class. Children who start school without sharing the language don’t have this comfort.

In a previous project about child language brokering in school one young man (then 15 years old) told us:

First day of school my mum said ‘I’ll call your aunt, she’s coming to take you to school’, I said ‘no, I’m going to school by myself. I have to do it myself or I can’t do it, if someone wants to always be with me then I can never do it myself in this country’, so from first day I started school I went by myself, yeah. And when I was going to school my body was like shaking, I think what is going to be here, first day, everything, everything they ask me I was hello, I’m all right, how are you, yeah, that was everything I know, yeah” (see here for more details of that study).

In this project we have been getting to know some young people from different schools who are taking part in our study. We have been finding out how they felt starting a new school and without being able to communicate. This has been a great opportunity for us to be able to get to know each other and find a comfortable space to talk about languages. We asked them, in groups, to write down key words for how they felt when they couldn’t share a language and how they might help another pupil who felt the same. While some did express some of the positive feelings such being ‘excited’ and ‘happy’ this word cloud, gathered from the key words on their charts, describes this daunting time. As one groups wrote:

“I felt so sad because I didn’t speak English. I didn’t have any friends, I cried every morning because I didn’t want to do to school and people were rude to me” 

starting 1

Ostarting 2n the other hand, the depth of understanding and empathy for other pupils amazed us. They have developed an instinctive attention to the role of embodiment, through the use of gestures and a smile, that can help. They are deeply aware that spoken word is not the only form of communication.

However, this level of understanding can only come about by explicitly talking about the social and emotional well-being of news pupils and the vital role that other, experienced pupils, can play in helping new arrivals to settle in.