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.
The TRUST project collaborated in the autumn of 2016 with two artists, Anne Lihavainen and Rosamaria Bolom, in a Mexican mask project for unaccompanied minors and Finnish art class pupils. We met in four workshops where the masks were made and also attended a party where the pupils performed with their masks.
The aim of the art project was to offer a platform for cross-cultural communication and interaction and to support mutual understanding and solidarity among the young people. For us researchers, this art project offered a perfect opportunity to examine how collaborative methods actually work and how communication between different groups evolves. Our research method was participant observation: we talked with young participants and photographed their working for research purposes. We also worked as “helping hands” for Anne and Rosamaria when necessary. Some of the schoolteachers were also present in the classes.
During the workshops, we witnessed various ways of communication. At first, there seemed to be no relations between the unaccompanied and Finnish youths, some even rejecting others. However, with the artists’ support, we began to notice some small acts of communication. At first, these were non-verbal (such as eye contact, smiles etc.), but as people became more familiar with one another, verbal communication also began to take place. This verbal communication, however, needed a lot of support from the workshop’s leaders. Language seemed to form a barrier to deeper communication – the unaccompanied minors seemed quite uncertain about their Finnish skills even though they had learned Finnish extremely fast. At the same time, some of them seemed uncertain about the Finnish pupils’ interest in them. “They are probably not interested in us”, one of the boys commented. In our understanding, Finnish pupils actually wanted to socialise but hesitated communicating because they felt that using Finnish might prove too difficult for the non-native speakers. In a way, each group tried to protect the other and avoid embarrassment.
Three of the workshops were organised in a school environment and the fourth in a group home of unaccompanied minors. The school environment differed greatly from the home environment. At school, the pupils behaved in a very organised way. They seemed to act as if programmed by teachers to perform school tasks and mostly obeyed without questioning. At the home environment, the young made an effort to create activities for themselves, for example playing volleyball while others were finishing their masks. The young people were much more active at the group home than at the school.
All in all, we observed constant negotiation of visibility within the entire group: some of the Finnish pupils were very noisy during the classes and confronted the adults while others worked silently and obeyed orders very literally. Unaccompanied minors were polite to the adults but were constantly moving around and in and out of the classroom. They also used their mobile phones very cleverly to hide from social interaction if they felt unable to join in. The boys from the preparatory class also constantly negotiated whether or not to participate in various workshop tasks.
The photographing collaboration in the workshops was my responsibility. We had agreed on how and when to do it, we had explained it to the pupils and had their written permissions. Despite this agreement, one of the unaccompanied minors constantly questioned my right to photograph. Sometimes he looked at me in a challenging way, shook his head or just watched me very sternly. Once he even played the headmaster (sitting behind the teacher’s desk) and told me not to take photos. I interpreted his way of behaviour so that he was worried about where his or others’ photos might be shown – even though we had tried to explain that we would take photos only for research purposes and not show them anywhere. However, my interpretation may not have been correct because at the same time he kept asking me to take pictures of him and posed very eagerly for me with and without masks. He also liked to look at the pictures I had taken of him. In a way, he used his power on me. For me as a researcher, this meant that I had to be ready to constantly negotiate the means of research with participants to make it collaborative. I also needed to consider that ‘the accepted means’ of working together are not always the most suitable ones; and neither are ‘the non-accepted’ ways always wrong in collaborative research. In our case, none of the boys ever asked me to delete any pictures. I interpreted this as an acceptance of my research method.
In many ways these collaborative mask workshops were a success. We heard and saw all kind of voices from different cultures woven together. While at first these voices were rather weak, they were nevertheless seeds of some kind of deeper understanding between young people from different backgrounds. It must be remembered that collaboration demands time to develop and we only managed a glimpse of it. In order to support the communication and strengthen the belonging of these lovely young pupils, we need ways that maintain relationships between young people and trustworthy adults, such as the artists Anne and Rosamaria. Working together is one way to create these necessary relationships. This kind of work requires a lot of social skills, empathy and compassion from the facilitative adults as the artists Anne and Rosamaria showed us.
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