Female leaning over a school desk engaging with a primary school refugee

Last week a couple of members of the Eluceo team went to the Grande-Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk for the day. The camp, nestled between a motorway and the railway line, has had a makeover in recent months, with 300 purpose-built heated shelters and communal toilets and showers.

It was a long day! Waking up at 2.30 in the morning to load the car up with supplies for the warehouse - tinned tomatoes, tinned tuna, rice, lentils, sugar - was no easy feat, while remembering to drive on the right side of the road was also troubling at times. 

They didn’t seem to be any grand volunteer plan in place; we just rocked up, asked around as to whether any help was needed, and ended up working in the school for the day. There are approximately 200 children on the site, some of whom are unaccompanied minors, however the population is transient, so there are always new faces popping up.  

There are actually three schools on the site, although they can’t legally call them schools, so something like ‘education centres’ are an often-used synonym, one for adults wanting to learn English or French, one for children up to 17 and the last for nursery-aged children.

The school is a set of quaint shed-like structures, built around some swings and sandpits, so children can shelter inside when it’s wet and cold, and have the freedom to play outside when it’s sunny. The two children schools were built by A School for Dunkirk - a campaign led by three Brighton-based organisations who started appealing for funds in February of this year. Inside, the schools look like any other, with pupils’ drawings on the wall, alphabets and times tables charts at regular intervals to help the kids learn.

The school has seen as many as 50 pupils in their schoolroom, however when we were there there was about eight at any one time, with a constant stream of new faces throughout the day. 

A new school room at a refugee camp in Dunkirk

Outside the schoolroom

They teach their pupils through donated workbooks. All learning is done on a one-to-one basis, and giving children workbooks means that there is consistency in what the children are being taught on day-to-day as the teacher population is as fluid as the refugee population. In fact, the school has enough workbooks and materials lovingly donated, but what they really need is more staff. Teachers are only free at certain times of the year.

Giving children their personal workbooks means that they have something which they can say is theirs - it’s a shame that they don’t take them away with them to the next place they get to. The school is also valuable at providing them with a stable environment; they will have attended school back home, and maths and the idea of learning is no different wherever you are in the world. Furthermore, the one-to-one aspect shows children that there are people out there with a vested interest in them, willing to make time for them and pay them attention. School and learning is something they can look forward to when there is little structure to the rest of the day or their lives. 

The school also gives them a space to play, and engage their imagination, through dressing up and crafts, and all the other things that young children enjoy. 

The question remains as to how the children fare when they are finally settled in a country and their new school. Even though the school in Dunkirk provides as much as it can for them, they will have missed a lot of school having been on the road for so long, and are likely to be behind.

It’s also not a long-term solution, and unfortunately the situation doesn’t seem to be coming to an end any time soon. Families are still leaving the Middle East in search of a new life. 

Refugee camps across the continent need to work together - one idea might be a  ‘learning passport’ which would enable a teacher anywhere in Europe to assess a child’s ability. The passport would come with a simple curriculum to follow and help the child progress and if at any point they move, the passport could be taken with them. In the next camp a teacher and school would be able to look at the passport and know straight away where to start with the pupil, saving a lot of time and hassle for both parties.

Or perhaps learning and teaching could be done online - camps would need to have access to more computers and the internet, but pupils would be able to work remotely with a teacher. Regardless of where the pupil was - he could be travelling from country to country - the child could be assigned a teacher who was a consistent face and would be able to get to know the pupil. As teachers in the UK that don’t have the time or the money to venture out to France on a regular basis, it would enable them to give up some of their time back home and know that they were playing their part. 

If you want to make a donation or offer help, you can find out more information from the school’s founder via his website edlumino.org.