Educating for dignity — a pleasure, a privilege and a learning curve

Better Days
Sep 23 · 5 min read

By Ciara McMackin, Volunteer at Gekko Kids — summer 2019

This year — school summer holidays 2019 — I spent the break teaching English to young people and adults, who live in camps and shelters in Lesvos, Greece, as they seek asylum in Europe. They must make their way to European soil before they can seek asylum, working through that multi-year process in the first European country in which they arrive.

It will take me a long time to fully digest this teaching experience — but what these reflections lack in hindsight they hold, hopefully, in immediacy. I am still caught up in connections to the community I encountered, and in the feelings of love and sadness, joy and immeasurable pride, despair, doubt and triumph these connections provoked.

My experience teaching refugees was, to try and sum up the impossible, a stark encounter with vulnerability and resilience, coexisting in nearly every moment. I knew of students’ vulnerability not only because they mentioned, in passing, their stomach aches, sleepless nights, and absentee parents (again and again) — but also because of their constantly slumped shoulders and sad eyes in the unconscious moments between laughter and joking. Simultaneously, I saw people support each other with a fierceness I had never before witnessed — adults painstakingly teaching each other to swim and spell, teenagers fist bumping with their nominal “younger brothers”, always watching, looking out for each other (and always, always translating!). I saw students try, and try, and try again — teaching themselves English, and guitar, and music, and art, as well as how to cook and manage money and stay away from drugs and alcohol (sport helps) and how to manage memories nobody should have to remember.

Teaching refugees on Lesvos was also perhaps my most powerful encounter with mankind’s “shared humanity” — about which I had repeatedly read, and in which I thought I already believed. However, I had never fully internalized that the wants and desires, the pleasures and sorrows that underpin the daily lives of young people from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Congo are those which also fill Irish school corridors with conversation. The young people I met, living on a dollar a day, do not wait on their allowance to buy kilos of rice to ensure a month’s sustenance (forgive my ignorance!) — they crave cold coffees with friends, and haircuts their peers will admire and all the sensory and identity based pleasures that dominated my own thoughts at that age (and, often, at this one!).

My time at Gekko School — a bastion of perseverance and compassion in a context of chaos, abandonment, and the selfishness of political whim — was much like my time in my own school in Dublin. I taught tutorials to 17-year olds, we used songs, board games and pictures to hook students in. We used dramas, gap-fill exercises and pair work to get them talking. We assessed their learning, working on social skills as well as academic, shared our passions and built on theirs in a bid for progress in English, maths, drama, STEM, photography, art, Greek and music. There were differences certainly: “teacher — pen”, “teacher — paper”, “hello teacher”, “teacher thank you” will echo around my head for quite some time, and the level of peer support and gratitude in my Gekko classrooms is something I have yet to see replicated elsewhere. Fundamentally though, the experience was the same — when I was patient and energetic the young people learned and were successful. When I was open and persistently kind they responded with participation and invitations into their lives and life stories. Some classes I succeeded, some classes I failed. It was both a privilege and a challenge — the same reasons I love every day in my own school and the reasons I would recommend this volunteer experience to every teacher.

The students’ time at Gekko school, however, was not “much like” that of students in Dublin. For them, school was not just a place of guidance, recognition, warmth, adult care and support, emotional support and learning — it was, for many, their main or only place of recognition, warmth, adult care and connection, emotional support and learning. This was the reason so many students hated to leave school — corridors bustled and school steps were crowded even when classes were over.

To conclude in the spirit of education (we teachers can’t help it!) — what can be learned from my brief and limited experience? Perhaps consider sharing skills by volunteering in such a rewarding context, or making a donation to support education (https://www.betterdays.ngo/) , infrastructural support (https://movementontheground.com/) or emotional reprieve (https://www.connectbymusic.com/en/connect-by-music/) for people who both need and deserve it. Simultaneously, know that such admirable actions, while invaluable, are bandaids. Such altruism prevents painful bleeding from a wound that will not heal — until the European electorate fully recognize that asylum seekers are not opportunistic mercenaries threatening “our” livelihoods and cultures, but our peers, born on soil of a different location, but with the same spectrum of human emotion and intellect as that of humans born here. It is not until this truth is recognized, and we begin to vote and act accordingly (Amnesty’s Iwelcome campaign (https://www.amnesty.ie/iwelcome/), Sanctuary Runners (https://sanctuaryrunners.ie/)and your local TD’s office are good places to start) that this wound will truly begin to heal — in the meantime, let’s lessen the pain.

Better Days
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