The “small world” in the classroom

What the devastation of war and economic hardship entail

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and curative teacher

In many school classes today, children are gathered from all over the world. Some families have been here for generations, others only recently. For teachers, the challenging task arises of bringing their students together and helping them to become rooted in their current homeland without losing the emotional connection to their country of origin.

From Greece, Spain, Kosovo, Iraq or Peru

The summer holidays are over. The pupils are back in their classrooms. Full of expectation and with many good intentions of what they want to do well or even better in the new school year. A few days before, many of them had been far away: in Greece, Spain, Kosovo, Iraq or even Peru, with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, as far as the current situation allowed. A “small world” in our classroom! Most of these children and young people were born here. Among them are Muslims, Jews or even Hindus, others are Christians or do not belong to any religious community. This has been the case for a long time. This gives us moving insights into the lives of families.

What should we do?

I think of Lorenzo, for example, and wonder what happened to him. He had great difficulties in learning and did not get along with the children. His example shows many problems that parents who come to us from a different cultural background can be confronted with. Lorenzo would always have liked to know and be able to do everything already. He found it difficult to sit down and learn the spelling of words laboriously. Instead, he shifted his activity to disruptive actions in class, with which he disturbed the more diligent and successful classmates in their learning. He often adopted a disrespectful tone towards us adults and did not listen to our reflections. The parents were also unhappy and at a loss. He also did not know what to do with his free time. He admired colleagues who hung around in their free time and became more and more oriented towards them. We kept asking ourselves how he could take a better path and could count on the support of his parents.

Honest, hardworking people who master their lives

Lorenzo’s mother was Croatian but grew up in Bosnia, his father came from Italy. He came to Switzerland from Calabria at the age of sixteen to look for work. Since then, he has worked in the construction industry. During the short holidays, he tries to recover from his demanding, harsh job. Every year, the family visits one of their home countries in turn. Lorenzo’s mother had a job in the hospitality industry, which was also a tough job, but she liked it. Both were honest, hardworking people who managed their lives. The father could only rarely take part in the parent-teacher meetings, but the mother included him in all pending issues.

She had no other choice

I quickly got into good contact with her, and so on one occasion she told me the complicated path that had led her to Switzerland:
  “My mother had worked in Switzerland before I was born. When she was pregnant with me, the family returned to Bosnia. I was born there. My father soon went back to Switzerland and my mother also followed him a year later. My older brother and I lived with our grandmother from then on. She was a strict woman. But she gave us a lot of love and was like a second mother to us. I like to think of her. After nine months, our mother came back to Bosnia for three months at a time. We were always happy. The situation with us children depressed her very much, she missed us. Today I can understand how bad it must have been for her. But the economic situation in our country left her no other choice.”

We were proud to be Yugoslavs

A Swiss friendly family helped her to get a permit so that we could move to Switzerland to live with her. That's why I spent my first years of school there. When my younger sister was born in 1983, we children returned to Bosnia with our mother. In the meantime, she had saved some money, which she used to open a small restaurant in our home country. We were happy to be home again, but missed our father very much. Despite everything, I have good memories of that time in Bosnia. We were Catholic, but had many Muslim friends. That wasn’t a problem then, you were just friends with each other, no matter what religion you belonged to. We were proud to be Yugoslavs. When Josip Tito died in 1980, it was a great loss for our country. I attended school in Bosnia until 1989.

If I had listened to my mother …

Actually, my mother would have liked me to work in the restaurant with her. But that didn't suit me. Out of defiance and youthful carelessness, I decided to go to Switzerland. So, at the age of 17, I came back to the country where I had spent the first years of my life. I worked in different restaurants and hotels. It was a hard time for me. I often wished I had listened to my mother. I worked for nine months at a time, then returned home. After three months, I went to Switzerland for another season. In the meantime, my mother had built up an existence for all of us in Sarajevo. Together with what my father sent us from Switzerland, we had enough money and could afford a lot. That was a nice time.

Within a few hours we lost everything

Then the first Bosnian war broke out in 1991. We tried to flee to Croatia, where we originally came from. We were Croats and Catholic, but with our Serbian family name we were quickly classified as undesirable Serbs. So, we returned to Bosnia. Then, for a short time, some peace returned to our lives. In 1993, the second war broke out. Within a few hours we lost everything we had built up, for which my family had worked hard and had done without a lot. That was on 3 June 1993! We gathered in the church. I didn’t have anything with me. I remember how I froze and the priest gave me his blue jacket. We all hoped that it would soon be over. At that time, we had taken in 20 refugees in our house, who had now also lost everything. But then we were told that it was much too dangerous to stay here, we had to leave.

Religion and ethnicity were not important

We received support from friends, neighbours and acquaintances; our religion and ethnicity did not matter. For example, there was a very poor Roma of Muslim faith. He had often asked for food from us in the restaurant in the past and my mother had always given him something. Now it was he who saved our lives because he urged my mother to leave immediately. We would have been shot otherwise. We hurriedly gathered what we found and wanted to take with us. By ten o’clock in the morning we had packed everything we absolutely needed into a car. My mother fled together with my grandmother and my little sister. There was no more room for my grandfather, my brother and me, so we fled on foot. My mother was very afraid for us. But we found each other again, happy to be alive. When it seemed possible, we risked returning home again. But in the meantime, there had been a fire in our house. My mother had hoped to find something in the ruins, because she had hidden silver and photos in the cellar.

Our life’s dream was destroyed

In the meantime, looters had taken everything that was usable in our house. Of course, there were those who took advantage of our emergency situation. That's just the way it is in war! But later we experienced something wonderful. We got our photos back through the Red Cross. A teacher of mine, she was Muslim, had taken these photo albums and given them to the Red Cross. So at least we got back some memories of our wonderful time. On the way, we met a Roma woman whom we had always supported. Now it was she who tried to comfort us. ‘Now we are all poor’, she said. So, we received gifts from many people, even if we didn’t know them. People helped each other. Finally, we fled to Croatia in a lorry. A very difficult time followed for all of us. My father was still working in Switzerland. We were glad that at least he was safe, but now we were completely on our own.

“I wanted to do everything well with my son”

That’s why we finally decided to join him in Switzerland. That was in 1994. I worked in canteens and restaurants. That's where I met my present husband. That was the most beautiful reward for the difficulties I had had! We soon got engaged and married. It was a very small wedding celebration, not as it had been customary at home in the past. A year later our son was born. I wanted to make everything good with him. After all the years of deprivation, fear and despair, I wanted to have a good time now. So, I fulfilled all his wishes and gave in to his insistence in all respects. Today I know that this was not good, but he should not be burdened by my history. My mother kept pointing out to me that I was spoiling my son too much. I did not hear that. But now I have to do everything 180 degrees differently, just like my mother always told me! Only then will he have a chance.”
  Her story touched me. I also understood better why Lorenzo struggled so much to tackle his tasks in life constructively. This conversation became an important milestone in our collaboration.

Devastating life situations through no fault of their own

Lorenzo's example is just one of many. They mirror the situation in our world. For most of the children and young people I remember, there were serious reasons that had forced their parents or grandparents to leave their homeland. For no one turns his back on his homeland voluntarily and with a light heart. Whether it is wars that violate international law or a country that becomes the theatre of proxy wars for the strategic interests of major powers or the shameless exploitation of mineral resources that drives people into hunger and misery, for many, fleeing to Europe is the last resort out of a devastating living situation that is not their own fault.

Seeking common ground

Often, however, life in their place of refuge is not easy. Not only the language, but also the foreign cultural customs and social coexistence can be very challenging. Those who try to integrate these families must also be aware of this. Often the exoticism is emphasised, the life of the foreigners that is different from our culture. But this is not very helpful. The main weight must not be on emphasising the otherness, but we must look for what we have in common. That which unites all people, such as concern for the well-being of the family and children, the desire for peaceful coexistence, the desire for meaningful work, and so on.

Mutual respect

Our efforts must be based on respect for the cultural achievements of the different countries that make up our “little world” in the classroom. In this way, it can become a learning field how we can meet and learn from each other in equality and mutual respect. In the process, it may well be that we are confronted with completely foreign ways of reacting and behaving, which in some cases are also not compatible with our legal system. It is then up to these children and young people, and possibly also to their parents, to respect our basic rules. This paves the way for them to acquire the tools they need for doing later on development work in their country of origin and to show other people there the basics of how to be able to master life.

Danger of alienating oneself from one’s own culture

But we have to be aware, especially nowadays, that many of these families have a cultural background that we can learn from, especially when it comes to social life. Lorenzo's mother had mentioned a problem that many families know in a similar way. Their children begin to one-sidedly admire the fashionable trends of current European culture and, against the background of a rather patriarchal orientation of their own culture, they can conclude that no rules apply here and what would never be possible at home is allowed. Their parents experience that their own children are alienated from their culture and they do not dare to say anything against it, but also do not understand why in our country children are allowed almost everything and why children often show little respect for their parents. Here we would do well to return to the natural orientation that children have towards their parents and other adults.

Educating children to be team-players

In this sense, we could all learn from each other. The school has an important role to play in this process. It is a “small world” in the classroom where all children, domestic and foreign, can learn to abide by the rules established in the community.
  For the teachers, it is important to definitely demand and enforce these rules. In fact, together with all parents, we face the same problems and the same task: namely, to educate their children to be team-players who are able and willing to contribute to the common good. •

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