'Broken-hearted and sad', British schoolchildren learn empathy for refugees

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Primary school children, including those with refugee backgrounds, read real-life stories about refugees during a classroom lesson about the refugee crisis at Norbury School in Harrow, London, Britain July 15, 2016. Picture taken July 15, 2016. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Lin Taylor Primary school children, including those with refugee backgrounds, read real-life stories about refugees during a classroom lesson about the refugee crisis at Norbury School in Harrow, London, Britain July 15, 2016. Picture taken July 15, 2016. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Lin Taylor

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In a quiet suburban school in northwest London, young children are asked to imagine that they need to leave their homes because Britain is at war.
As they close their eyes and sit in silence, their teacher Teri-Louise O'Brien explains that there are 60 million displaced people in the world right now.
"Time to reflect: how would you feel if you had no home? Take a pen, and write your feelings on the paper."
One child scribbles, "I would feel heartbroken and sad" while another writes, "I would feel sad and neglected because I wouldn't have a warm place to sleep in".
The children, aged between six and 11, spend time discussing the differences between a refugee, an asylum seeker, a migrant and a displaced person.
O'Brien then switches off the lights before playing a short video of Syrian refugees living in camps in Lebanon and Jordan.
"I hate not knowing"
It's not a typical classroom lesson for students at Norbury School, but it's one that some of the children are grateful for.
"It feels good to know what's happening in the news because I hate not knowing," said 10-year-old Naavya.
Since learning about the refugee crisis, she said she no longer finds her classmate, a Syrian refugee, "annoying".
"I do learn that it can be really hard for him," Naavya told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I didn't even know it (the Syrian war) was happening when he first came. I kind of feel sad for him because he had to leave (his country)."
Britain is home to 126,000 refugees, according to the British Red Cross, and received nearly 40,000 asylum applications last year of which 45 percent were approved.
The largest numbers of asylum seekers were from Eritrea, Pakistan then Syria.
In Norbury School, there are around 25 children with refugee backgrounds from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia. While many were born in Britain, others like Yakoub, 7, have only recently arrived from Syria.
"I saw some really bad stuff like bombs and guns," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Once there was a gas bomb right in front me."
Yakoub, who arrived two years ago with his family, said he would think about the war a lot during school. When these memories overwhelm him, or other refugee students, they are taken outside to play.
More than 4.8 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt to escape a war that has killed more than 250,000 people since 2011 and left 13.5 million inside Syria in need of aid.
Safe space
O'Brien said she hoped teaching the students about refugees would give them a better understanding of what it means to flee war and persecution.
The 23-year-old uses lesson plans, supplied by the United Nations Children's Agency (UNICEF), to encourage children to ask questions. The students' parents are also encouraged to discuss the issues at home.
"We want them to understand that everybody is human, and everybody is the same and that they need to look after each other," she said.
Since there are refugee students in classrooms, it is important to help children make sense of the crisis in a child-friendly way, said UNICEF spokeswoman Lilly Carlise.
"It's everywhere in the news at the moment. There are refugees in schools, they're part of the community, so I don't think you can shield children from these issues," she said.
Carlise said more than 4,000 primary and secondary schools were sent the lesson plans in June and the response so far has been positive.
"It's the whole school coming together ... to talk about issues around the refugee crisis and welcome refugee children into their school."
Being among other children who have had a similar experience has brought comfort to most refugee students.
"I thought I was I was going to be the only one from Afghanistan. I'll be the only one who's different," said Mahsa. "But I wasn't. Everyone's from different backgrounds and I just fit in."
Zainab, whose parents are Iraqi refugees, agreed. "You don't feel like a refugee, you feel like a normal person. It's because everyone's treats everyone the same."

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