This guest blog post was written by Elena Natale, one of our Undergraduate students studying education with modern and medieval languages.
30th May 2016 to 9th June 2016
STORIES FROM A CAMP
By Elena Natale
It is hard to describe my days in the Dunkirk Camp both because of their intensity and because feelings and experiences are hard to explain in words. However, I feel that telling about my adventure is a necessary step for it to be continued by other inspired people who care about humanity. One of the first messages I want to communicate is that what we hear on the news or read in papers about the refugee crisis and about refugees themselves is just a small part of the picture, often badly painted with lots of misconceptions. This is because the focus is on the politics of immigration and the effects of this on society, rather than on the individuals and their stories. I do not intend to get involved with the politics at all, but rather bring a human touch to the matter. With this in mind, I left my safe, comfortable student life in Cambridge and went to volunteer in the Dunkirk La Linière Camp, spending most of my time in the classroom and the children’s centre.
Figure 1: The Edlumino classroom on the left and the children’s centre on the right.
My time at the classroom run by Edlumino Education Aid, a collaboration of teachers and people interested in education, was very enriching; especially given my interest in becoming a teacher. The classroom is very well resourced and it is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. This is extremely important given that the camp in itself is unattractive in terms of aesthetics and architecture. Children from about 7+ of different abilities and with different previous experiences of schooling go to learn when they want all throughout the week. Depending on the number of teachers and volunteers present the children are taught in small groups or one-to-one tuition and the content of learning and teaching is mainly English and maths. Many children go to school for just a short period of time, most of them manage to stay for an hour. This is facilitated by the ‘bracelet method’, in other words after an hour of learning children receive a paper bracelet as a form of reward and as an entry-pass to the play centre just opposite the classroom.
Figure 2: The classroom
It was an amazing experience to help out in the classroom because many of the children arrive and are eager to learn, it is just about finding the right way for them to do so. This therefore requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to use existing teaching skills in completely new ways. The greatest challenge is to find ways to motivate the children and engage them in learning. This is especially the case because many of them are tired as they have been awake during the night trying to get on trucks, or alternatively they are influenced by their environment and by the other children. However it is not an unachievable goal: I myself experimented teaching using different techniques such as flash cards, visual and sensory objects, alternating some learning games with more structured learning.
Figure 3: The children’s centre activity area.
Figure 4: The play area.
Teaching in the camp is a stimulating experience for anyone interested in education and it encourages all those involved to share different teaching and learning approaches. All of these approaches seem to work as children return to school and their improvements are easily noticeable. I would hazard a guess that this is because everyone teaching is interested in the children as individuals and as learners. Added to this there is a shared recognition of the wider role of education: in other words education not just about the teaching of skills and knowledge but also about the development of feelings, behaviours and attitudes towards oneself, the environment and others.
I had a wonderful time at the children’s centre, opposite the classroom, as I had the opportunity not only to become a child again but also to organise entertaining and educative activities for children of all ages. In particular the centre is the camp’s safe space for children: from the small babies to the more exuberant older ones. There they can play and be themselves and rediscover their innocence and their abilities to dream. In it the children have the opportunities to explore and learn using different toys, art materials, sports equipment, books. The presence of teachers and volunteers means that each one can focus and spend time with smaller groups of children and organise games and activities. Having said this it is almost impossible to continue one activity for long because there is so much going on around. Consequently it is always important to have one eye in the game and the other on what is going on everywhere else; this is both to avoid brutal fights or stone throwing and also to make sure that none of the children are left alone or unsupervised.
A typical day at the centre starts around 10.30/11am when the children who are too small to go to the classroom are brought by their parents or by their older siblings. In the morning usually a creative activity, like playing music or some art work, is organised and then the children have a small snack time followed by free play. The centre closes for a lunch break around 1.30pm and the children then come back from 3pm to 5pm. In the afternoon, depending on the weather, the children either do some sports, physical activities or simply play outdoors. During my time at the centre a group of volunteers had just planted lots of flowers and plants so the children took over the responsibility to water them, something that they greatly enjoyed. I also attempted to do some dance routines and simple yoga/fitness exercises with the children. At first it was hard but then I realised it is all about consistency and about adapting the activity so as to suit the interests and needs of the children. It was wonderful to see a group of 10/15 children, who after many attempts, managed to sit together in a circle, do some stretching, make coordinated noises and take part in group interactions. The smallest satisfactions of volunteering with children derive from the simplest things: for example when a child says please, thank you, sorry or comes to give you a hug. All of these small gestures make you feel like you have achieved something great and unforgettable.
I spent most of my time moving in between the classroom and the children’s centre and it was interesting to notice how they both operate differently with different objectives. However despite this they both successfully achieve the goal of providing children with a safe space just for them where they can come and let out their energies, learn, spend time with other children and with adults who care about them. All the teachers and volunteers that I met are inspiring people and it is fascinating to listen to their stories. In particular the long-term volunteers who have been in the camp since it was first opened explained how they have seen the changes from children learning and playing in very small improvised tents, to larger ones to the complete, inviting and well-furnished buildings in which they are now.
What I have learned through this experience is that teaching in the sorts of conditions present in the camp requires a different approach to education: it requires people who are enthusiastic, sensitive and who are able to connect to individuals by catering for their needs of love and affection. The children and their families should be the core centre around which everything is done. Only when the connections between human beings are encouraged and safeguarded can true and meaningful changes of the individuals’ psychological and emotional conditions be made. To conclude, volunteering in the camp is for me about trying to reach the hearts of people and allowing everyone to reclaim their identity.