The power of hammocks and jumpers

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 twoA 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.

Self-made nook in one of the learning houses (Photo: Mervi Kaukko)

Coping to live and learn, living and learning to cope

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.


Mervilasten kuvat
Children´s drawings (photo Mervi Kaukko)