Nick Holdsworth meets an education officer whose teaching pack on Bosnia grew from her compassion
Michelle Robbins was holidaying in Italy when the full horror of the war in Bosnia struck her.
Satellite television images in her hotel room were far stronger than anything she had seen at home and she vowed to help refugees caught up in the bloody civil war.
Three years later, after two visits to Bosnia as an aid agency volunteer, the Oxfordshire education officer has launched a learning pack for junior-aged children so some of the issues arising from the Balkan tragedy can be used in lessons.
Ms Robbins says the enlightened attitude of Oxfordshire's education service allowed her to work on a learning resource beyond her usual duties of governor development. She didn't plan to capitalise on her Bosnian experiences in this way, but invitations from county headteachers, mainly primary, to talk about her work with the charity Feed The Children led to fund-raising activities. A project pack on Bosnia followed after a second visit to the war zone.
"The coverage on CNN which I saw in Italy was much more graphic than we were used to at home and I came back thinking I really must do something," Ms Robbins, a former secondary school teacher, says. "I decided to raise money through raffles at work and when I heard a radio appeal for Feed The Children, it triggered the urge to use my summer leave to go and help more directly. "
Determination overcame predictable barriers: friends raised the airfare and an insurance company paid the Pounds 1,700 war zone cover.
First she attended to the immediate needs of the mostly Muslim women and children fleeing "ethnic cleansing" and front-line fighting, such as giving them fresh clothes and food and bathing the children. After that she uses her education experience to help draw up a report for the charity on the post-war educational needs of the Bosnians. The school system had been fractured by the war and many schools had been turned into defensive positions by troops during fighting.
Back home after her first summer visit in 1994, she was in demand by Oxfordshire schools who had raised more than Pounds 5,000 for Bosnia and collected food and clothing. In response, she and a group of county primary heads and teaching advisers began to develop a learning pack.
It was aimed at junior children because this was the group which showed the most immediate interest in the refugee crisis in Bosnia.
"Every time I have done a talk I have tailored it quite carefully to the age range. There is a fine line, especially with small children, and you need to scale the talks to the age group. The older the group the more explicit you can be and the more challenging the learning activities can be," she says.
During her second visit during July and August last year, she began more detailed research. It was a time when many women and children were fleeing the collapsing United Nations "safe havens" at Zepa and Srebrenica.
An extract from her journal reveals the simple human incidents which underscore the Bosnian tragedy: "One mother and her daughter made a particular impact on me today . . . Amela spoke a little English and had a lovely serene face. She had been forced to leave her husband, her father and her uncle behind in Zepa. Her eyes filled with tears when she spoke of them. She was obviously very happy when I enthused over Asla and when we had finished said 'Thank you very much' again and again. This moved me more than I can say. I was giving her just essentials and she was so grateful."
The results of this harrowing experience can be found in Bosnia, a Project Pack for 7-11 Year Olds. Piloted last term in 14 Oxfordshire primary schools, it has had such an enthusiastic reception from schools and inspectors, that the Oxford-based National Primary Centre has now published it for national consumption. It contains 10 laminated topic sheets with maps, historic background, the role of the UN, news media and aid agencies.
Dejan's story, about the experiences of a little refugee boy, is a key element of the pack. It begins: "Dejan was feeling worried. Some people were cross with each other and had been fighting but Dejan did not know why . . . One morning Dejan's mother woke him very early and said they were going to live in a different country. She packed a few things in a bag but most of Dejan's toys had to be left behind".
Sue Matthew, head of St Ebbe's First School, Oxford, who helped develop material for the pack, said six and seven-year-olds had responded positively. "It has cross-curricular uses - in geography, history, speaking and listening, even maths and system analysis because it can be used as a basis for planning, designing and carrying out project work or fund-raising. We looked at Dejan's story and one girl said that if he came to her school she would help him. Then she added that she would offer him a place to stay at her house."
There are plans to translate the pack into French, Croatian and Serbo-Croat tongues. For Michelle Robbins there is yet another charitable cause to throw herself into - finding computers to send to Bosnian schools.
* Bosnia costs Pounds 5.50 for Oxfordshire schools and Pounds 6.50 to others, from the National Primary Centre, Westminster College, Oxford, OX2 9AT, tel 01865 245242.More ideas on helping Bosnianchildren can be obtained from Feed the Children, 82 Caversham Road, Reading, Berks, RG1 8AE.