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Helping children reflect on refugees and ‘home’

LifeJackets founder Carrie Comfort on why we included refuge & migration in our ‘home’ reading challenge?

I started LifeJackets just as the refugee crisis unfolded around us in 2015. I was already starting to plan our first reading challenge themed on ‘home’ and the issue felt too big to ignore.

The moment it really struck me was when I stopped at a service station on a family car journey one bank holiday. I flicked through a newspaper and saw a colour picture of this family. They were dressed practically for a walk or picnic, wearing jeans and sweatshirts, and had just climbed through a fence to reach safety in Hungary.

Armed police reached for them and the father, who ran ahead with a small child, looked back at the mother screaming behind them. She was clearly unable to get away. This family was dressed like ours, and as I looked around the service station, I knew that family in the picture could have been any of us.

I was deeply affected by that, and knew that many children seeing images like these would be struggling to process them. Everyone involved in LifeJackets saw that refuge and migration would fit with ‘home’ in terms of a theme and knew we needed to include it.

The thing a refugee leaves behind, by definition, is their home. When people first come to the UK, many will lack housing, particularly stable and adequate housing, so in many ways the themes of refuge and of homelessness intertwine.  

“We invite children to reflect on what makes them feel they belong in a new place.”

 In my experience as a youth worker, children often have a very strong sense of justice, and seeing injustice can be a catalyst for children to consider their own ethical code, emerging as more empowered, compassionate citizens. But if we are continually exposed to despair, many of us harden our hearts to the suffering of others, particularly when we are unable to help. How could children understand what was happening without feeling despairWe knew our activities had to be hopeful, relevant to the everyday lives of children, and empowering.

We concentrated on thinking about what it would be like for children, like the child in the newspaper picture, once they finally stop fleeing and have to build a life somewhere new. How could children taking part in our activities feel empowered to help other children starting out in their schools? What knowledge could equip them to be kind?

Our activities also needed to offer meaningful and appropriate opportunities for reflection to children who had lived-experience of migration, as well as those who were worried and confused by the destruction they were seeing reported and hearing adults speaking about. Both our pilot and our experiences evaluating the challenge when it ran in Lewisham told us our approach of looking at the issues at one remove met both these goals.

LifeJackets activities explore what it’s like to be new and to start over in a new place. We invite children to reflect on what makes them feel they belong in a new place, what someone needs to know in a new school and ways that all children, even and sometimes especially, those recently arrived, have the power to welcome newcomers – whether they are coming to your school from Devon or from Syria.

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