Skip to main content

Handle with care

School may be the only safe place in a refugee child's day. Reva Klein looks at a resource pack that can help you rise to the challenge

I like The Diary of Anne Frank. Some of it seems like it was my own life." Zana, aged 11 when she said these words last year, came to Britain three years ago with her parents and four sisters, seeking refuge from the terror in Kosovo. They had no choice. "A few weeks before we came here, my dad lost his job. After that we weren't really that poor, but we didn't have much to eat. Injured people came to our house to hide from the police. We had very little food and we had to share it with them." She pauses for a moment. "We left so many people behind."

Today she and her family live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, where they have two bedrooms and a tiny kitchen. One of the rooms can't be used because it is cold and damp. "It's quite dark inside and my mum has asthma and my sister gets bronchitis. I help in the house because it's my job because I'm grown up."

Zana is one of 69,000 school-age refugee children estimated to be in the UK. Despite the horrible circumstances that drove her family here and the poverty they are now in, the aspirant actressdancerfashion designerarchitect is one of the lucky ones - her family have stayed together in London, and Zana attends a school with expertise and compassion in its approach to refugee children.

Thousands of others are less lucky, dispersed around the country to areas where foreigners are seen as a perplexing and often unwelcome addition to the community. In many parts of the UK, refugee children are entering schools which have no experience of their situation or understanding of how best to help them.

Save the Children and the Refugee Council have published a resource and training pack to help primary schools meet these children's diverse needs. In Safe Hands is a comprehensive compendium, covering a wide range of issues and giving guidance on how to integrate children who have come from all parts of the world, baffled by displacement and often carrying the trauma of war and violence with them.

The pack contains a video featuring Salusbury primary in the London borough of Brent, held up as a model of exceptional practice in the way it caters for a refugee community of 100 children. Says headteacher Carol Munro: "I like to think that we're a place where everyone feels safe, respected, relaxed and happy; where children can build high self-esteem and where they can perform well, not just academically but in other ways, too."

The school raised money for the creation of its "World Refugee Centre", an annex where parents can find education and support. Often in a dire emotional state when they arrive, the parents are grateful to find a place that helps break down the barriers of alienation and the sense of being out of control of their lives. Maria, an Iraqi Kurd whose resistance-leader husband was killed by government forces, is typical of newly arrived parents. Choking back the sobs, she says: "When English people look at me, they think I've come here to get money. I feel so awkward and embarrassed. We had everything, now we have nothing."

It's vital that teachers are prepared for the children's complex emotional needs. A central issue is knowing how to make them welcome without making them feel singled out. Says Peter Cunningham, acting primary programme director at the University of North London's school of education: "There's always a danger as with any minority group that schools will try to be helpful and kind but in the process will try too hard. Most children want to belong, not be made to feel they're different, particularly as they will have already been excluded in so may ways in their home countries. So it's important, particularly when there's not much cultural diversity in the classroom, to avoid making children feel vulnerable or to draw attention to their differentness by putting them on the spot by, for instance, asking them to tell the class about where they come from. It actually has the potential to cause further trauma."

But there is a delicate balance to be struck between inclusiveness and ignoring difference. Some children report that there was no attempt to integrate them and that they felt lonely because they were just left to get on with things academically and socially.

Teachers need to use their professional judgment, guided by school policies to assess what is in the best interests of the child. "Making generalisations and thinking in stereotypes is a danger when you're dealing with refugee children, whether it's about what they have left behind or what their level of academic achievement is. There are so many experiences and circumstances that they represent. This is why whole school policies are so important, rather than individual teachers having to think entirely on their feet," says Cunningham.

A policy enshrined by Salusbury and another inner London school, Torriano Juniors, is the validation of children's home languages. At Salusbury, teachers during literacy hour will ask children what their word is for "caterpillar", or "library", and make a positive comment about it. Torriano has set up mother-tongue after-school classes for Albanian and Somali-speaking children, led by parents and supported by a grant from Camden council. "It gives those communities a stake in the school and there are real positive spin-offs in the children's curricular work and their confidence," says Rose Haddow, ethnic-minority and traveller achievement grant teacher.

Schools are in a unique position. They have the potential to be a safe haven - perhaps the only one - in the new lives of refugee children, a place of stability where they can begin to reconstruct their lives. In Safe Hands can help schools fulfil this role.

In Safe Hands costs pound;20 plus pamp;p and is available from Save the Children Publications, 01752 202301; email: orders@plymbridge. com. Peter Cunningham is co-author of a chapter in the forthcoming book Bilinguality and Literacy: from Principle to Practice edited by M. Datta, published by Continuum.


* In 1999, approximately 70,000 people applied for asylum; 42 per cent were given full refugee status and 46 per cent were refused; 4,000 unaccompanied children also sought asylum, the majority were aged from 13 to 18 years, but some were younger.

* The government provides adult refugees with pound;10 in cash per week together with vouchers equivalent to 70 per cent of income support; children receive vouchers equal to 100 per cent of income support.

* The main countries of origin of asylum-seekers coming to the UKinclude Afghanistan, Albania, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Poland and Romania. Ethnic groups include Kurdish people from Turkey and Roma from the Czech Republic.


* Set up a refugee support andor resource team.

* Organise training on relevant issues - for example: working with interpreters; accessing resources for refugees; developing English-language teaching; making links with parents; and learning about the history and culture of different refugee communities * Design and implement effective anti-racist and anti-bullying strategies

* Make strong positive links with parents and carers

* Develop suitable English language support

* Encourage children's home-language development

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you