“I feel the earth, I feel the sky, I feel myself.”
About 30 children from Besirve Camp for displaced Iraqi citizens, near Zakho in northern Iraq, have gathered in a circle. It’s early morning and rain clouds gather above.
Their faces shining and happy, the children recite their mantra, putting their hands down to the earth, lifting them up to the sky and placing their hands on their chests.
The children sing a song and then divide into groups for different activities. Some prefer sculpture, sitting in the courtyard of the camp’s UNICEF-supported school, their hands messy with dark red clay. Others head to the drawing room where they receive pencils and paper. Still others remain outside for more physical activity, where they walk along a rope trailing along the ground, with a ball balanced on their heads, arms outstretched.
“We do the same things every day,” says Friends of Waldorf Project Manager Jessica Prentice. “We start with the mantra, and then we sing a song. The mantra is basically saying ‘we’re here, we’re now,’ and the point is to get the children’s minds back into their bodies.”
The programme, supported by a generous donation from the government of Canada, will initially run for ten months. It provides the opportunity for children who’ve suffered from displacement, violence and stress to express themselves in non-verbal ways as part of a healing process.
According to the Friends of Waldorf philosophy, physical activity such as balancing encourages children to focus on their bodies rather than their thoughts, bringing them back to a sense of place and presence.
“Being actively and not passively engaged has a healing effect, and so this goes beyond the level of entertaining children,” Ms Prentice says.
The teachers working with the children are mostly from Sinjar and they know too well what their young charges have been through.
“I am also displaced from Sinjar, and helping the children helps me. When I do this job, I’m happy,” says Najla, one of the teachers.
The summer school classes run in three daily shifts, accepting the first 100 to arrive then moving on to the second and third shifts to accommodate as many students as they can. The Friends of Waldorf project is part of UNICEF’s wider back to school campaign to encourage children to return to formal education.
In the long term, Friends of Waldorf works to ensure that school is more than just a place of learning, but an anchor for the community.
“We try to build a more holistic system around children and strengthen the community around the school.” Ms Prentice says. “Our philosophy is learning by doing. Stimulate the senses in the learning process. This approach challenges more than the intellect, and we’ve seen it can make a big difference.”
Chris Niles is a consultant with UNICEF Iraq.
Direction donations to UNICEF Iraq: https://support.unicef.org/campaign/donate-now/donate