Resisting Empathy Fatigue
by Jane Larsson, Executive Director, Council of International Schools
Today we launch CIS Perspectives, a blog about our community. Why should you take the time to read this blog? What will you find of value within? Our focus will be on meaningful actions taken by members of the CIS Community, actions with broad implications which we’ll explore together. We know there are great things going on around the world in our schools and universities, and we’re all eager to learn from our peers about their initiatives and experiences. And so, this blog will feature the stories we see and hear as we meet with members of the CIS Community around the world who are shaping the future of international education.
Today, I’ll tell you the stories of inspirational efforts by our school communities in Germany and in Jordan, as they each strive to welcome and help their neighbours from other countries, to embrace people of many faiths, to educate the world about the origins and impact of the conflict in the Middle East, and the resulting challenges faced by their communities, and indeed us all. Their perspectives are important - we find lessons for our own efforts within.
Poem and drawing from Refugees tell their story, edited by Marie Wijk
Resisting Empathy Fatigue
September took me on the road…to Berlin, on to Mumbai, Bangkok, back to Dubai, up to Amman and then back to Leiden, over to Stuttgart and on to Astana. And while I began this long journey with specific objectives - to support the launch of new CIS initiatives and services - many conversations inevitably led to the conflict in the Middle East and the resulting migration crisis – one that has captured my attention and indeed that of so many I met.
My first stop was Berlin, where I attended a meeting of the Heads of the Association of German International Schools (AGIS). Their leaders, in a round table discussion, shared their deliberations and struggles as they told what their schools are doing to support refugees arriving in Germany. I felt very proud of the caring, inclusive leadership I saw demonstrated as they each described the actions their communities are undertaking to lend their resources and expertise to support families fleeing conflict as they seek stability and peace for their children.
The AGIS schools are considering both the short term needs of these families and potential long term solutions, openly fostering dialogue with their students about the crisis so they can develop their understanding as they reflect upon the needs and hopes of the families arriving in their communities, families who are now forced to seek new lives, ones they did not choose to seek, but that they were forced to seek.
Yet, as AGIS school leaders are actively working on solutions, they also voiced disappointing challenges. While they told of the great support provided by their families for refugees, they also reported hearing parents say, ”as long as my children do not come into contact with refugees.”
International Schools are often referred to as “homes” by families and students, but they should NOT be islands. While we work with our students to emphasize commonalities, we should also help them to explore differences.
Download the AGIS Statement of Support (pdf).
Departing Germany, I travelled on to Mumbai, to Bangkok and Dubai. Throughout, there has been daily, almost incessant news of conflict, of struggle, of violence. As I walked through the airport in Dubai with my colleague Graham, I shared my frustration. I’m typically a very positive person, but that day, the stories and pictures of the daily struggles of refugees got to me. I told him, “This morning I began to watch the news and all of a sudden, I reached my limit. I stood up, shut down my laptop, walked over to the TV and turned it off too.” I felt powerless.
We arrived in Jordan, where the CIS Board of Trustees gathered for our October meeting, hosted by Hana Kanan and the International Academy Amman. During our stay, we wanted to learn specifically what schools in Jordan are doing to help with the education of refugee children. Hana called Jordanian Senator and our colleague, Haifa Najjar, Director of the Ahliyyah School for Girls. Together they shared a stark portrayal of the situation in Jordan.
Senator Najjar: “We are nearing the breaking point, with weakening infrastructure and limited resources.” Jordan’s total population is expected to reach 10 million by the end of November… over 2 million of which are refugees from neighbouring countries. Hana added, “Our borders have never closed in Jordan. 80-85 immigrants enter Jordan on a daily basis…We need to increase capacity – and share the burden.”
They presented in detail, the significant pressures on the Jordanian educational system. The significant increase in enrolment from Syrian refugee children (over 143,000) means that schools are running two shifts of shorter days to meet the demand. Resources are running low, and often extracurricular programs, arts and sports have been eliminated. Schools now have to confront an increase in violence among children. This tense scene becomes even more fraught when one takes into account that 97,132 refugee children remain outside of education and there are simply no funds to cover the cost.
Hana told us the story of a new school, built with a generous donation, in a refugee camp, to get children back to school. “But before the school could open, the students destroyed the school. Why did they do this? They did not want a school in a refugee camp. While materials continue to be donated, the kids are not going to school. They are angry. They want the world to know they are not okay.”
As I later walked through the city of Amman, a father told me he feels as if Jordanians are “in a room, surrounded by fire, and we don’t know what direction the fire will take.”
Senator Najjar explained how she sees Jordan’s role in the midst of this crisis: “While Jordan represents a reality admired by the world, it must now provoke the world to share the burden. [We] need to invite alternative thinking; a new mind-set.” She asked, “How can private schools contribute towards advancing the quality of education in Jordan? Have private schools failed their leaders, and in their leadership? What current strategies do private and international schools need to adopt to carry out their responsibility toward such a crisis? Bake sales, donations and supplies are not enough. Youth can do a lot. We need to facilitate dialogue among children, to help raise their questions.”
From Senator Haifa Najjar’s presentation, “The Impact of the Syrian Crisis on the Jordanian Education System”
Their recommendations for the educational community include changing from an emergency response to a developmental response. Eligibility to attend formal schooling should be adjusted to allow for more admission. The capacity of education systems should be expanded to provide safe spaces for children and youth where they can create a resilience-based approach. Teachers should be trained in order to properly respond to psychological and physical disability issues. Schools should foster alternative solutions to teach life skills that can offer children alternate ways of communication instead of violence and bullying.
Hana told us of a plea made by the Queen of Jordan: “The terms ISIS, IS or IL should no longer be used due to the perceived links with Islam.” Queen Rania stated in an interview, “Let's drop the first 'I' In ISIS. There's nothing Islamic about them.” She asks that all people use the term DAISH instead.
“Advocacy is needed. Jordan alone cannot do it. Hope is still there,” explained Haifa. “Jordanian people are always hopeful. Why did we open our borders? Jordan could not have acted differently. We need to open our houses to our neighbours. We need to invite hope through the dialogue of young people. Take our people beyond the political agenda.”
Watching these crises from afar, empathy fatigue can set in. Many of us share this sense of feeling overwhelmed. We choose to turn away, we avoid the news and stop watching the chaos and tragedy.
What to do?
In such times, I ask myself this question. I have determined that we must rely on what we do, on our expertise, to double down in our jobs, to do them well and use our profession, where we have the incredible responsibility and opportunity to mentor and encourage young people, to foster dialogue and hear their aspirations or fears. As they strive to be heard, to be noticed, to be accepted, we must create safe spaces for young people to talk about their ideas, and how they can put them into productive action.
I was inspired by the students we met in Jordan, the fine educators in our schools, the stories they shared, and by their passionate pleas for support to help educate the world. Members of the CIS Board and Leadership Team and I were all deeply moved by Haifa and Hana’s presentation of the situation in Jordan, by their illustration of conflict in the region, the resulting migration, the data that illustrates the responsibility now shouldered by the Jordanian people as they try to support their neighbours, and by their passionate pleas for help to create understanding, and to more equitably share the burden of support for families who are fleeing conflict.
We need to tell these stories, and other stories of our schools’ efforts to help refugees and to educate refugee children. One of the strengths of our community is our connectedness. We have the ability to spread the word about what is working, and just as importantly what is not working.
There are many lessons to be learned…and shared…within the stories told by our colleagues in Germany and in Jordan. What is your perspective?
What has been learned about the educational needs of refugee children in the Middle East and around the world as they seek stable lives?
What is the impact of refugees on our educational programmes overall?
What interventions are working? What is not working?
You can view the resources about the current refugee crisis that Senator Haifa Najjar used for her presentation in the links below.
- Jordan Response Plan 2015 (pdf)
- UNESCO EDUCATION SECTOR Response to the Syrian Crisis in Jordan, November 2013 (pdf)
- UNICEF, Children and Youth in Jordan Host Communities, March 2015 (pdf)
- UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response Information Sharing Portal
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