Grand Synthe camp in Dunkirk is about half an hour away from the migrant camp in Calais, known as The Jungle. It has a different sort of resident, and a feel of its own. Whilst Calais grew rapidly into a sprawling city, Dunkirk was in its shadow, lesser known and until recently under the radar of the media. They do not have access to the facilities, amenities or the infrastructure that those in Calais do. I was told there are somewhere in the region of 2000 refugees here, and I only count 15 portaloos on the whole site. These are steam cleaned by the French authorities regularly, with the dirty water pouring out into the sticky mud and creating puddles on the main pathway that goes through the camp.
As I walked into the Grand Synthe camp I was stunned and silent, speechless. Whilst The Jungle sprang up in an industrial area in close-ish proximity to the ferry ports and channel tunnel terminal, Grand Synthe is further out. It sits slap bang in the middle of suburbia. A lovely housing estate, with some of the nicest properties I have seen in the area, over looks the camp. It used to be their dog walking park, with beautifully woven branches as fences, and streams, and whilst the fenced and barbed entrance to The Jungle shocked me, the juxtaposition between these lovely houses and the squalor of the refugees’ camp, as I walked along the pavement, literally blew my mind. The winter sun was shining, albeit without any warmth, on the right hand side of the street, whilst the trees shaded the area to my left. As an English teacher the image will forever spring to mind when I teach juxtaposition and pathetic fallacy.
One of the questions I had was ‘why?’ Why did they set up here, so far from the ports? Why in this park in the middle of a new, seemingly middle class, development?
By the end of my first day I had a few thoughts on why. You see, Grand Synthe camp has a lot of families. Far more children are visible than I had ever seen in The Jungle. I imagine that many of the parents were, are, professionals. Teachers, doctors, university trained. The refugees, the people, in Grand Synthe are educated and value education. Parents are happy to wave their children off to school, shouting ‘Teacher, teacher’ or ‘l'ecole', school’ as we pick our way through the mud and ice to our tent. These people value education, parents want their children to be schooled, the children really really want to learn.
So, a day in the life.
We make our way into the quiet camp around 10.30am. It doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of Calais, many of the little ones are still in their tents. It is minus 3 degrees, was colder during the night, and the mud and brown puddles are iced over. The floor is treacherously slippery and uneven, although the smell is not so bad because the puddles are frozen. It’s not raining. It looks it’s best in the icy sun. It also gives us the luxury of outdoor space.
Our catchment area is a muddy mess, with tents rather than the wooden huts or shipping containers of Calais. Between the tents lie piles of rubbish and discarded clothes. There is a great deal of aid coming in, especially at weekends but now there is a surplus, heaps of clothes lie in the mud, many are brand new, some still with tags. Lorries come in and clear away these soiled, unwanted, kind donations like litter. Some tents have shoes lined up outside them, more than I have. These donations are so abundant that their value is starting to be lost. Maybe the charities and kind people donating need to talk to each other better.
We make our way to the school tent, which is down a makeshift path made of wooden pallets covered in chicken wire to lessen your chance of slipping (not that effective, sadly and sometimes it feels safer to go off piste, and brave the mud and weeds), then over a makeshift bridge. The green grass that once covered the park is now gone and mud rules supreme.
On arrival at the classroom we unlock the tent, by removing the screw that holds the zip closed and we get inside to check what is there. We prepare the learning environment. On this day a plastic box has gone, it contained biscuits so is no significant loss, although it was a helpful makeshift shelf/table. A child’s hat that sat on a balloon in the corner has also gone, it was a tiger with long sides that would keep little ears warm. None of our teaching resources have gone. The tent is as cold inside as the air outside. We start to empty the tent as it is our over night storage facility too. We carefully remove the metal sheets that will eventually protect little cold hands from a log burner, the wooden benches that we will sit on with the students who aren’t being taught in the tent and a blue fold up table that we were donated (turned up outside the tent) this week. And once unpacked, it is time to start school. We laugh about the lack of, well, anything. Our classroom currently has the alphabet spray painted on the inside, but we ran out of paint at U. It makes a temperamental IWB or projector seem insignificant, the children don’t mind though. We will finish painting X, Y and Z next week.
The children walk to school as many do in the UK. Some children come to school with us as we walk through the camp in the morning, we say hi to the parents and they wave off their children from the tent. Its like a walking bus. Sometimes we give them a balloon, but they don’t need any persuasion. We stop on the way, pointing at cats and saying ‘cat’ together, and then ‘chat’, then at a chicken or too and do the same, smiling, pointing and shouting ‘chicken’ and ‘poulet’ as we are an international school and French is the local language, that they need and want to learn too. Other children make their own way, or come with older siblings, getting dropped off at the tent door.
The lesson plan for the day is to teach the alphabet, then numbers, then body parts. There is no register but they tell us their names. We say them back. Some children giggle at our poor pronunciation, whilst others repeat patiently. They teach us too. We start by singing the alphabet song. I don’t have a good singing voice, but again the children forgive me and their happy, enthusiastic, loud singing drowns out my tuneless attempts. We point at the alphabet and then move to a mini whiteboard for the final letters. Next we do some written work. We join the dots on letters, overcoming the issue of how to actually write each letter. Many of our students write their letters from right to left, bottom to top. They have learned Kurdish, or Arabic, as their first written language, so now have to relearn a different way. They are familiar with English, to varying degrees, as learn it from the age of 4 in Iraq. The differentiation is that some students move on to writing letters without dots. Then they move to a colleague who is using some tatty flash cards that we have been donated, looking at the pictures and the words and writing some of their own. They generously trade their words for ours, again causing amusement when we mispronounciate or when I struggle to sound my Rs. Older students step in and teach alongside us, with us, helping to bridge the language barrier.
We start to get cold sitting still, focusing on our written work, so go into the playground (which is the same temperature as the tent) for some more active learning. We start of in a circle moving around holding hands and singing the alphabet but then move onto body parts. Heads, shoulders, knees and toes. We get quite good at that bit. So move onto ‘and eyes and ears and moth and nose’. The little girl next to me, wrapped up like the michelin man, with hands in pink gloves is very excited. She does the ‘eyes’ bit perfectly, but gets stuck on the ‘ears’ bit. I point to my ear, pulling it out with my cold fingers and hoping she will remember the word. She doesn’t. Instead she beams, the grin spreads across her flushed cheeks and she proudly screams ‘EYES’. Instantly I realise my mistake. I smile and we start again. After a few attempts she gets it. Progress.
We break for lunch and the children go off home, they eat with their families. Food is cooked by a charity on site, from a bus. It is free. Others choose to cook at home, on camp fires or small metal stoves. The children are cold but don’t seem too hungry. We head out for warm coffee and a wee; no lunch duties here. One of my colleagues has lost a glove. It’s no big deal, she will make do with one for the rest of the day. Besides after lunch it’s maths, a perfect excuse to rub our hands.
So school starts again. The children arrive as and when. No sanction for poor attendance or being late. We count using our fingers. We rub our hands as hard and fast as we can to warm them up. I notice a few of us students have very swollen knuckles and visibly broken fingers, that have long since healed. Then our fingers go deep in pockets and we ask then to show us 4 fingers, we assess by looking around and helping them if they are stuck. They help each other too, straightening fingers or counting with pride on each others fingers. We do the same rubbing, hiding, showing. We do up to ten, then 15, then 20, using a friend to add fingers to our own. We struggle a bit after 15 but continue to try. Then we write numbers. These children have real resilience, not just in their learning. And my colleagues and I challenge them with their pronunciation and writing and have high expectations.
In the afternoon we get also get more older students. They are bright and want to read. We separate and sit in groups according to ability/age.
I have 2 little ones, back for more, we look at some early reader books and point at frogs, mouthing and practising the word, then dog, then cat and mat. One of my students is off task, he has seen an aeroplane and I have lost his attention as he points and smiles. We are getting cold again so we go to the flatter play area and are aeroplanes for a short while, we say the word and spread our wings. It is like no lesson I have ever taught before. Then we do some verbs, jumping whilst shouting jump, running on the spot and shouting run. I stop talking and they continue to shout the word that matches my action. They are very proud of the words they are learning to form. When they pronounce something incorrectly I correct them. They keep trying until they get it right.
My colleagues are both sat with older girls, they listen whilst they read to them asking questions to check understanding. These girls are bright, they taught with us earlier, but now get their lessons now. My colleague tells us that one is so gifted that she would be Oxbridge material, in other circumstances.
Lessons get disrupted just as they do in the UK when the snow starts to fall or the grass gets cut. Here though, it is by the sound of a chainsaw, some helpful aid workers are steadying our benches by making them I shaped so they don’t topple over so often.
Our caretaker is a cat. He kills a rat by chewing it’s head off in the tent. The kids don’t flinch. The teachers do a little though, a colleague quickly removes and buries the headless corpse.
The winter sun starts to drop low in the sky and the only slightly thawing mud begins to harden once more. We give the students a little bag of sweets each, in return we are each given a small chocolate egg. We practise saying ‘would you like one?’ ‘yes please’ ‘please can I have one?’ and ‘of course’ and then we pack up. We stand waving goodbye and the students all shout ‘goodbye, teacher’ and ‘thank you, teacher’ as they make their way back over the rickety bridge to their tents, with their carefully written letters of the alphabet and worksheets folded neatly in their pockets. A couple take reading books with them, we don’t sign them out. They are reliable students.
Everything else is put back in the tent, and we secure it the best that we can. It is Friday and we hope that it is all still there on Monday when we return, it usually is.
We stand for a moment. We feel privileged and humble. We are teachers. Out here it doesn’t matter whether you are traditionalist or progressive. What matters is the children we teach and ours will go home and share their new words, and songs, with their families in cold tents tonight. And then they will come back to school, with big brave smiles and boundless enthusiasm, on Monday.
So, how can you help us?
If you think that you can help us we are in desperate need of teachers who can commit to a day or two a week, on a regular basis. We also need teachers who could support us for a week or so at a time. We want continuity and consistency for our students. You might be retired, part time, self employed or have a supportive Head who sees the value in CPD and would release you for a day a week for 3 months. You will have a current DBS and you won’t moan if everything goes wrong, because it will. You will be resilient and passionate and believe that all children are entitled to an education. You can be a primary or secondary specialist, and your subject doesn’t matter so long as you can adapt and try new things. None of my experience as an AST, SLE or AVP has been that helpful. Its more about getting back to the basics of learning and teaching. We need teachers who can question, assess, engage when they have very little in the way of resources- or who are willing to learn and try. I am currently working to provide a training day to staff who can help us, and Independent Thinking are really helping out with that.
We’re also thinking that for about 50k we would be able to fund a classroom for a year, as it would cover a teacher salary to enable us to staff the classroom each day and to cover their travel and over-night expenses. This could be one permanent teacher or a few part time teachers who commit to work regular days each week. If 50 secondary schools would commit to 1 non-uniform day, with students paying a pound each, that would generate the £50k. If you think that your school could sign up, that would be a massive step forward for us in effectively endowing a refugee classroom for a year. It could make all the difference to our students. We can happily provide some resources to help your students to understand where their money would be used and why it is so important.
We have already had so many kind donations including textbooks, reading books, the proceeds from a book once it is published and one school has donated us lots of childrens’ waterproof watches which will allow our students to set an alarm and get to school on time at the start of the day or back on time after lunch. At TM BETT last night I was overwhelmed with so many generous offers and was even given a clock to teach the time to our kids (Thank you so much to that lovely woman- please do let me know who you are if you read this!). If you have spoken to any of us, please do use the link too as we are literally struggling to keep track of the generous offers and would hate to miss or forget about anything that could help our students.
If you have already made us an offer to donate or support, or would like to know what else would really help us, please have a look at bit.ly/school4all if you haven’t already done so. We will contact you once we are in a position to go ahead and take you up on your generous offers. Our website is now live, so feel free to make contact with us through that too, you can find us atedlumino.org please bear with us as it will be developing and improving over the coming weeks. Anyone who registers interest with an email address will be added to our mailing list and we can then update you on our work, in the camps, more regularly.
If you can’t offer your time, support a non uniform day or any resources at present, why not speak to your students, and raise awareness in your school through projects or assemblies. Teach them empathy and the importance of honesty over bias, whatever the key stage or your specialism. Teach them about humanity and privilege. We are all teachers of values, humanity and compassion. So if nothing else is possible, please do that. We will try to support you if we can!
Natalie Scott is a qualified English teacher, currently teaching in a school in Hertfordshire. To read more from her reflections on teaching and education go to https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @nataliehscott