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Teachers Have Moral Duty to Help Refugee Children

High-profile former British headteacher Rory Fox swapped British academies for muddy refugee camps in France to teach the children. He discusses how shocked he was at how little was being done to help them.

Written by Daniel Howden Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Refugee children and a British volunteer play outside of the school tent in Grande-Synth camp, Calais. Edlumino

One of the most high profile head teachers in Britain, Dr. Rory Fox, came to prominence as a disciplinarian restoring order to failing schools. His no-nonsense approach to turning around two academy schools earned him the moniker of the “toughest head in England.”

Even these experiences, including protests from teachers, parents and pupils, are mild in comparison with his attempts to teach refugee and migrant children in a makeshift tented classroom near Calais.

After setting up the educational charity Edlumino, Fox and some fellow teachers and volunteers contended with freezing winter temperatures, knee-high mud and rats in Grande-Synthe, a camp with a shifting population of over 2,000 refugees. “It was like some ancient battlefield,” he told the Guardian.

Since October 2015, the charity has opened and operated emergency education centers in the informal camps near Calais. The “studiums,” as it calls them, are large tents that operated as classrooms in Calais, Basroch and La Liniere. The last of the three is still functioning.

The Cambridge teacher is currently fundraising for a project to deploy teachers to camps in Greece where some 57,000 refugees have been stranded by the closure in April of land borders used by migrants to reach Western Europe. Another project, also in the planning stage, intends to assist international organizations in providing schooling to the large number of girls from the Yazidi minority who have been forced to flee Iraq.

Refugees Deeply: What prompted the switch from teaching in Britain to the mud and mess of informal refugee camps?

Rory Fox: Although I’ve been seeing pictures of the refugee problem in the news for some time, until I went and saw the refugee children for myself I just hadn’t appreciated how dire their situation was from an educational and child protection perspective.

I suppose that I could have gone back to England and tried to close my eyes to it and say that it wasn’t my problem. But I’ve always felt that when you find a problem, you should do what you can to put the problem right. Edmund Burke once said that all it takes for evil to triumph in situations is for good people to do nothing.

The Edlumino school tent at the refugee camp in La Liniere, France. (Edlumino)

The Edlumino school tent at the refugee camp in La Liniere, France. (Edlumino)

I knew that I couldn’t necessarily solve the problem of refugee education, but I could certainly make the situation less bad than it was. So that is what I set out to do. Ultimately it’s not everyone who can step out of mainstream teaching for a while, but I saw that I could – and so I concluded that I should.

Refugees Deeply: What child protection issues have you faced?

Over the 10 months we have been in France, we have faced a full range of child protection issues, from children needing food, clothing or medication to children who are being physically or sexually assaulted, to instances of children being enticed into lorries under false pretenses.

Some of the hardest issues have arisen when children have said how excited they are to be offered a cut-price deal by a smuggler. Rather than a fare of, say, €8,000 ($8,950), a child would say that they have been offered a smuggling passage for just €1,000. In those situations, the most likely scenario is that a smuggler is offering a child a cheap fare in order to entice them into a lorry and then sell them to someone else, or into prostitution, in order to make more money than would otherwise be lost with the cheap fare.

We have spent a lot of time talking to children to get them to realize that cheap deals are not what they seem on the surface. I think one of the hardest things for us to deal with has been the realization of how little is actually being done to help the children.

We famously raised the case of an unaccompanied minor on BBC News. We explained that he doesn’t even have anywhere to sleep at night, and that he was getting beaten up by gangs because he didn’t want to be drawn into their criminality. Apparently that news report was seen by several million people. But a month later, absolutely nothing had changed in that child’s life. No one even came to talk to us about the problem.

Refugees Deeply: What do countries hosting refugee communities in camp-like conditions, like France, need to do better?

Fox: The overwhelming problem seems to me to be the gangs and organized crime. They threaten and intimidate the people in the camps and sometimes resort to violence. It is difficult to clear the smugglers out of the camps because people are too scared to testify against them. The police can periodically pick up suspicious people, but without evidence against them, they get released and just come straight back to the camps.

I can’t see how the smuggler problem can ever be solved as long as camps are allowed to spring up so close to the English border. The camps bring together a large group of people looking for criminals to smuggle them, and so they are a magnet to criminality.

There should be no doubt about how serious these gangs are, as children have reported being asked to sit on boxes of guns and bags of drugs in the backs of lorries when they are being smuggled.

Refugees Deeply: How has teaching refugee children in settings like the so-called Calais “jungle” differed from teaching in a British school?

Fox: Children are children, and so the fundamentals of teaching is the same, whether they are sitting on a bench in a muddy field, or being taught in a modern classroom. However, there have been a range of practical difficulties that we have had to deal with, such as how to teach groups when there are so many different languages present.

In the refugee camps, we have been quite limited in the resources we can use as we have not had enough electricity to power a set of computers. It has made us return to first principles in how we think about organizing our work space and conveying ideas to children.

One of the major things we have taken away from our teaching in France is the realization of how teaching materials need to be organized differently in order to be successful in refugee camp situations. We are now working on a project to produce resources that can be used easily and successfully in other refugee teaching situations.

Refugees Deeply: Can you tell us about memorable students or experiences from your time in France?

Fox: I remember one 16-year-old called Sivan. She was in the camp trying to get to England to be reunited with her father who had lived there for several years. She was very studious and would ask for homework every day. She was the kind of student who would have got 12 A/A* grades at GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), if she had the same educational opportunities that English children take for granted. I started her off on International GCSE courses and went to Paris to ask a school if it would be an exam center for her. The school agreed, and we were in the middle of trying to organize exams for her when she suddenly disappeared. I pray that she has come to no harm.

Another pupil I recall is Barez, a 13-year-old boy. He had a very disrupted education, attending more than six schools already. As part of his science education we introduced him to a microscope, and he was so taken by it that he would bring us daily specimens to examine. He is a very bright boy, and was working from a math text book for 15-year-olds. He has a natural authority among his peer group and would help us by resolving disagreements among other pupils. He is the sort of pupil who would probably be a head boy in a mainstream school.

Refugees Deeply: Your future plans reportedly involve opening a school in northern Greece, which is where many Yazidi children are sheltering in camps. What is your motivation for wanting to help Yazidi girls?

Fox: Over the last few months working in France, we have had a growing number of people getting in touch with us, asking us if we can help groups of children in different places around the Mediterranean. One of the requests that came to us concerned the Yazidi girls. Previous to that request, I had just not realized how appallingly they had been treated. Accounts were given to me of how the Yazidi have been subject to mass rapes, murders, torture, and girls as young as seven being sold into sex slavery. Only a month or so ago, a group were burned to death in a cage.

What has happened to those girls is so utterly unjust and immoral that I think that any normal person would want to do what they can to assist them. As teachers we cannot put right the fundamental problems with lawlessness and disorder, but we can certainly help to repair education and get the girls back to the normalcy of school and education.

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