The fast pace, the criteria of “evidence” and the push to publish make research with children challenging. In particular, it becomes difficult to understand what matters for children. Refugee children, just like any other children, do not just tell us about important things if we ask. What they might do is invite us to their worlds and show us, but only if they believe we are interested and available.
In my ongoing fieldwork with refugee children in an Australian primary school, I have made a methodological choice to slow down, be available and of use in the everyday school lives of the children. At the same time, I have been thinking how safety, belonging and success, which Ravi Kohli (2011) beautifully describes as being the dimensions of wellbeing for recently arrived unaccompanied minors, come into being in the physical premises of a school. With the luxury of slowness and this framework, some of the seemingly trivial details these children value have started to make perfect sense. Below, I give three examples.
The inside and the outside of the school are equipped with child-made hammocks, hideaways and nooks, which the schoolchildren presented to me with pride. The nooks serve multiple purposes as homes, work places, restaurants and schools. The times tables are easier to learn in a hammock. Lunches taste better in stick-nests. Yet more importantly, these are places of tranquillity and safety. Safety is needed, as one little girl told me, against the zombies walking around in the school yard. Her zombies came from an imaginary game but for others, the zombies felt real.
The sense of belonging presents itself in the form of self-designed sixth-grade jumpers. These jumpers were no less than the best thing in the whole school (according to one of the girls I interviewed), and the feeling is stronger than the burning Australian sun. This girl drew and talked with me for two hours on a hot summer day, telling me she never takes the jumper off. It is more than a piece of clothing, it is a treasure connecting this girl, with her name printed on the back, with other sixth-graders. While the idea is not unique to this school, its significance may be. For children from a variety of backgrounds, negotiating their belonging across times, languages and groups, a jumper connects them to this moment and this group of children.
The third dimension, success, is as important as the first two. A boy’s discussion about a solar system hanging from the ceiling illustrates this point. While showing it to me, he also told me about the connections between maths, science and the wider world, and his need to learn them all to be able to travel to space. He, like many others in this school, began his school journey at a refugee camp, in very unfavourable circumstances. He did not want just to learn the minimum or to survive or to get a better life than his families. He loved to learn and achieve academically because his world was so interesting. The world was made available to him, among other things, with an accessible solar system. Merely asking this boy about his dreams for success might have resulted in a different answer. Letting him speak, in his own words and in his own environment, led the discussion in this direction.
These few glimpses help us appreciate the power of seemingly little things in providing safety, belonging and success in the everyday lives of a multicultural school. Moreover, exploring how these dimensions materialise in hammocks, jumpers and solar systems helps us understand the multiple worlds in which refugee children live in, the worlds they carry in them and the ways in which school can accommodate them.
How do you imagine that escaping from home, missing out on education and having to start over in a strange country would influence a refugee child’s future chances of doing well in school? Scanning through the research in the fields of education, cognitive and social development, and child migration, you might come to a conclusion that these children are doomed to fail. Fortunately, the relationship between forced migration and educational outcomes is not as simple as that.
Recently, I interviewed 45 refugee students who were all nominated by their teachers as being successful in school in Finland and Australia. Students told me about their school experiences in a form of school path pictures and narratives. Many of the pictures were painted in dark colours; dangerous sea crossings, dead families, fear, neglect, and abuse. Assyrian Rebqah told me about her family being torn apart, her schooling being interrupted and her working as a cleaner at the age of eight or nine. Kumara from Sri Lanka told me about his long stay in different Australian offshore detention camps, where too few teachers tried to teach too many students, under the burning sun and without suitable material. Iraqi Aarif, like the majority of the children, recalled the pain of being hit by teachers.
Asking Kumara, Rebqah and Aarif whether their past experiences could explain their current school success might sound like a stretch; what good could come out of such hardships? Well, it was less of a stretch than I expected. The answers painted clear and colourful pictures of the resourcefulness and elasticity of these children as they coped to live and learn, and lived and learned to cope. Kumara learned that he loves to study, and that he must orchestrate his own possibilities to do so despite poor resources. Rebqah learned that cleaning is not what she wants to do, she is much happier in school. Aarif learned he wants to end violence in Iraq, and that he might start from schools. Today, these are all happy, engaged and successful students with big plans.
These children are not “miraculous exceptions”, nor are their stories uncommon. Stories such as these are just too often submerged by deficit discourses that position the children as victims of barriers due to their background, and schools as remedial places. This is understandable as many traditional research methods fail to acknowledge the child’s own view, and consequently, focus on the trauma and the trouble. This, in turn, strengthens the well-meaning but counterproductive deficit discourse. Furthermore, because of this, the ears of adults are not tuned to hear what children want to share.
Tuning our ears towards more positive frequencies is necessary if we wish to hear a full, stereophonic story of ordinary school life, which the refugee children want to share. Success that makes sense in the situation of a refugee child is more than measurable academic excellence. Success is built on safety and belonging, and maintained by good educational practices, genuinely interested teachers and caring friends. Importantly, refugee children want to belong in and contribute to their education, not to be fixed by it. Like all children, they want an opportunity to live and learn, not only cope.
Schools are nests of bridging and bonding. They are filled with many arrangements that enable and constrain learning but also how people inhabit the shared place and relate to one another.
This autumn I had a chance to spend three weeks observing such arrangements and practices at North Park Primary School  near Melbourne, Australia. At North Park, the native language of 88% of the students is not English, the majority of them having recently migrated to Australia. Most of the students live with one or both parents, but some children are unaccompanied minors. You might assume that loneliness and isolation would be a problem in a place like this. But the way North Park has addressed the potential loneliness is extraordinary. Every detail of the school practices, from the physical arrangements of learning spaces to the pedagogical tools the teachers use and the way they address students and their families, is carefully planned with the guiding principle of the school in mind: Positive relationships are at the core of all successful learning. This philosophy goes beyond mere rhetoric. In my field work, for instance, I had to interview the children during their lessons, instead of their breaks, so that none of them would miss valuable socialising time.
The guiding principle also means that instead of only acknowledging isolation and loneliness as common problems of migrant students, the school has the responsibility to fight them. For instance, the teachers do not have a yard duty; they have play support during recess. Adults participate in the games with children, making sure everybody is included. Children’s families and close ones, be they parents, relatives or workers of child welfare units, are included in the spirit of the whole school approach. Also interestingly, considering the school is located in quite a disadvantaged neighbourhood, one of its core values is optimism. Be hopeful and believe that good things will come is declared with colourful pictures on the walls.
During my three weeks of ethnographic field work, I witnessed a lot of these ideals in practice. A lively, multilingual chitchat filled the space. Headscarves and dastaars were complemented with hats to protect children from the burning sun, a variety of outfits (ranging from sari to Superman) were combined with school uniforms. Not once did I see or hear of threatening behaviour towards another person. I did see a sad student beating a rattan chair into pieces with a baseball bat, under the supervision of a teacher. Letting the student physically work out his anger in a supervised, safe space indicates that teachers care (rather than punish). Another instance from the recess shows that also students care. I escorted a crying child back to her classmates in the school playground. When I asked the other children whether they would play with the girl, their answer was immediate: Of course! Anyone! Unsure of what I heard, I checked what the children meant. They meant that the inclusive approach was unchallenged: children would play with anyone who came to play, how silly of me even to ask!
In my field work, I experienced several amazing moments with children and young people. I untangled wool in a cross-stitch work as a teacher, which led to untangling complex teenage problems. I discussed domestic violence while painting tabletops together with a group of students with behavioural challenges. I learned about the parenting roles of sea horses (male sea horses have a pouch and responsibility for the offspring) with six-year-olds, who were wondering where they would survive if they were sea horses. Not in their fathers’ pouches, as the fathers were not in Australia. The solution was an agreement that it is good to be human, without having to squeeze into anybody’s pouch. As a parent, my heart sank during many of these conversations, but as a researcher and a teacher, so many issues also astonished me. Children’s joy, optimism and elaborate analyses of how they cope without their parents’ pouches surprised me. While children amaze me everywhere in the world, little things in this Australian school make a world of difference in enabling optimism in children’s lives.
 Name changed