Making global citizenship education possible for refugees

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By Ozlem Eskiocak

Our students, learning about global values, become frustrated that they are unable to experience this world. Learning about diversity, they possess limited opportunities to interact with people from elsewhere.

All around the world we are witnessing an increased focus on global citizenship education (GCE). Fostering global citizenship was listed as one of the three priorities of the UN Secretary General’s Global Education First Initiative (2012). Then came the global consultations. This in turn led to the first ‘pedagogical guidance’ from UNESCO: Global Citizenship Education: Topics and Learning Objectives.

As elaborated in that pioneering document, global citizenship refers to a sense of belonging to a common humanity. And the values of that common humanity are underpinned by human rights. Accordingly the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA[1]) delivers this work through its Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme.

At UNRWA, we have developed a Human Rights Education Policy whose vision is to empower Palestine refugee students so that they can enjoy their rights, uphold human rights values, and contribute positively to their society and the global community. We implement this policy through a Human Rights Education Toolkit for teachers. There are three elements to this approach.

Firstly, we do not discuss global human rights issues as a separate subject or as a discrete programme. Instead, we train and guide all our 19,000 teachers to integrate human rights issues into the regular subjects they teach 500,000 refugee children.

The second element is active student engagement. Children learn while they play. For example through the Toolkit activity, ‘If the World Were 100 People’, children play a game to discover how diverse the world is while also learning maths skills such as statistics. Activities like this give Palestine refugee students a chance to explore diversity and discuss global issues even though almost all have never set foot outside their places of birth.

Thirdly, we have a strong ‘action and application’ element in our approach. Application of human rights concepts is important because global citizenship education is not only about knowledge and understanding, but particularly about attitudes and behavioural change. Young people don’t want to just learn about problems and feel powerless: they want to act and instigate change.

To strengthen the application of human rights concepts, UNRWA has established School Parliaments in all of our 691 schools across the five fields where we operate. These elected School Parliaments empower young people to become responsible and proactive contributors to their communities through practical projects. School Parliaments have resulted in the greater participation of people with disabilities in community life, in greener environments, and in the increased participation of children in decision-making.

Challenging contexts

We offer human rights education in a very challenging context. In wartorn Syria, the occupied Palestinian territory which comprises the Gaza Strip (under blockade) and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Jordan and Lebanon, where the influx of Palestine refugees from Syria has added to the challenges of the existing camps. Some children witness human rights violations on a daily basis.

The main challenge we face is to deal with the daily dichotomy: the human rights values we promote versus the realities on the ground. For example, last year, I was observing a class in Gaza after the hostilities of the summer of 2014. The students were going through one of our human rights activities in which they were asked to draw their ideal world. Some of these 8 year-old children drew rockets directed at their homes because that was their reality. In other words, even the blue skies in their drawings were littered with rockets.

Another challenge initially was the distrust of the community and their teachers in global human rights discourse. When we first began our work in human rights education, some of our teachers asked: “how can I teach human rights when my own rights as refugees are not respected?” Community members similarly questioned the value of human rights education.

The key to addressing these challenges was a participatory process, achieved through a lengthy pre-testing phase with teachers, students, and the broader community. While it is important to have international best practice meeting frontline needs, in the end it is the teachers who best understand their local context. Creating a space for grievances to be aired relating to their own human rights – or lack thereof – resulted in ownership of the process. And the prospect of future generations enjoying the rights they were denied has converted many opponents of GCE into our most vocal champions.

Open days were held where members of the community joined in conducting human rights activities with the students, and saw first-hand how empowering it was for children to know about and demand their rights. They began to see how the School Parliament human rights projects benefited the whole community. One father of a UNWRA student in Lebanon commented, ““Human rights are like a compass that direct us to humanity”, while the mother of a Syrian student admitted, “We parents were not fully aware of most of these rights. We saw how our children were discussing their rights as mature and empowered people.”

Such competencies – the attainment of human rights attitudes, values and skills – can only be fully realized if parents and communities are on board. Otherwise a school-home divide will open up where children are not able to practice what they have learned. We use animated videos to prevent any such divide in the community by showing how human rights education promotes gender equality, human rights within the community, respect and peace. Here for example, students work on conflict resolution competencies while they improve their writing skills.

Lack of contact 

A final challenge worth noting is the lack of ‘contact’ with the global world – an issue faced by many refugees. While our students learn about global issues and values they often become frustrated that they are unable to experience this world. They learn about diversity but possess limited opportunities to interact with people from elsewhere. They often ask me if others know of their plight.

The pilot approach here is connecting our students with students from around the world, so that they can take their discussion and action to a global level. You can watch a video here where you will see Palestine refugee students from Syria, displaced once again, their human rights once again violated, yet able to partner with students from the UK to advocate for their right to education, locally and globally. This video exemplifies some of the attitudes of a global citizen that peace education practitioners would like to foster.

As shown here, given the chance, young people are able to connect with that common humanity. And projects like #MyVoiceMySchool give them that irreplaceable global human contact.  UNRWA’s Human Rights, Conflict Resolution and Tolerance Education Programme is generously funded by the US Government.

The views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Ozlem Eskiocak is Human Rights Education Programme Coordinator of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

This article is first published on openDemocracy on 5 November 2016.

[1] UNRWA is a United Nations agency established by the General Assembly in 1949 and mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees. Its mission is to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip achieve their full human development potential, pending a just solution to their plight. UNRWA services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, camp infrastructure and improvement, and microfinance.

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