I have been procrastinating writing this post. Not because I am lazy (which I am), but because I feel overwhelmed by a motley of emotions when I think about the following topic. I cannot describe this topic in one word; perhaps because it is somewhere at the intersection of literacy, immigration, colonialism, racism, nationalism, and children. Did I miss anything? Probably.
This post is about everything that has been on my mind since I got back from an educational trip to the Netherlands in June of 2016–so, about a year and a half. The trip to the Netherlands in 2016 was a three-week fellowship, where 17 fellows led by two established scholars in the field of education (Dr. David Wong & Dr. John Dirkx), embarked on a journey to learn more about the Dutch school system’s inclusive approaches to the refugee population migrating in millions to Europe. There were other goals to the fellowship, too. But, I want to focus on the refugee crisis for this post.
During the three weeks, we met with several educators and professional, among whom were the teachers working in ISK, Maastricht (a transition school for the refugee youth), who had opened their doors and hearts for a mix of youngsters escaping war, corruption, and terror. As a part of Michigan State University’s team, we got the opportunity to interact with the refugee youth and learn more about their experiences coming to the Netherlands. As we engaged with them, we constantly reflected on how we could help them. This reflection soon became a struggle, which spread through our group like a virus, attacking each one of us individually with varying intensity.
My reflections on the tribulations of these youngsters started to hit me continually during our travel. Every place we visited, everyone we met, were a constant reminder to me that, as an educator and researcher, there was nothing that I was doing to help these youth. Day-by-day, their stories started to get closer to my lived experiences. When I saw a young boy from Afghanistan looking back at me from down the hall at ISK, his smile reminded me of friends and cousins back home. Walking around the school, meeting with teachers and students, I would occasionally pause and look around to find him smiling and looking back at me. Eventually, I found my way to him. He was shy. But he wanted to talk to me. His friends gathered around, too. Without a common language to share, we “talked” for as long as we could. “Bollywood! Shah Rukh Khan!,” they said, referring to one of the biggest film stars in India (and perhaps globally). “Cricket!,” one of them exclaimed, too excited to control his volume. I shared some words in Pashto I remembered from Pakistani and Afghani songs. They giggled uncontrollably. They showed me pictures they had pasted together to prepare a collage of “home.” Images of people playing cricket, beautiful mountains, lovely traditional clothing–everything that reminded me of home as well. Suddenly, the refugee crisis was not a distant issue to me. I had an overwhelming feeling that it was happening to my people. The thought of “my people” succumbing to a tragedy started to crush me emotionally. My helplessness was reaching desperate limits. All I could think was that I was leaving behind more children and youngsters like my Afghani brothers and sisters to suffer.
This feeling of abandonment and helplessness reached its culmination when we visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Being situated in Anne’s story–which I had read a long time ago–the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed changed for me. For a moment, I forgot the intersectionality of race, religion, and nationality, and all I could think of was men versus children. I intentionally use the word men here, because this space does not deserve an inclusive rhetoric. The horrific acts that men have committed and continue to commit have had atrocious repercussions for children. The thought that children like my brothers and sisters were met with horrendous ends because of some men in power. When children like Anne Frank died, the future died with them. And Anne Frank is just one story. Millions of children have died horrendous deaths due to atrocities committed by men–and they continue to die. So, I cannot help but ask myself: how many children would have to die for us to realize that these atrocities need to end? How many?
To end on a positive note, following David and John’s lead in MSU, I have designed a study abroad course for pre-service teachers and other undergraduates in the college of human sciences at Iowa State University. My goal with this course is to help our future educators and human scientists live the experiences of these youth themselves so they can help change the future–so we do not keep repeating the past.