While researching the Calais Jungle, I came across an interesting project instigated by the University of East London. Running since November 2015, this undertaking involved a short, accredited university course called “Life Stories” which was made available to the refugee residents of the “Jungle”. It recognized that the residents had extremely limited access to further university education despite often being highly motivated and qualified. (Many refugees are professionals or university graduates.) Some were using the course as a gateway to further intended higher education study, while others were using it as a vehicle to improve and hone their written or oral English expression (Lounasmaa, 2016).
Stories are an important part of anyone’s identity, and the narrative has the incredible potential to “give voice” to people who are in marginalized positions of influence and power. It was hoped that through this vehicle of expression, residents would also be able to process not only the physical and psychological difficulties faced in the camp, but also the extremely harrowing and traumatic situations from which many of them have fled. (Hansen, 2016).
Workshops were held to read and discuss life stories of famous people such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mala Yousafzai, as well as examining photographic, poetic and video presentations of the lives of various other global figures. These substantive discussions helped to perpetuate the development of the residents’ oral English skills (Hansen, 2016).
From this foundation, the students were then given the opportunity to create their own life stories via a variety of mediums and modalities such as written essays, artwork, photography, video, drama and poetry – much of which could be created or documented using smartphone cameras or apps. These stories could be visual, oral or written in nature.
The ultimate goal was to give a platform for the voice of the marginalized to be heard. As Hansen further explained: “Not all stories are equally voiced. There are worlds of privileged voices and worlds of lost voices. Stories are always embedded and patterned through cultures of inequalities; of ethnicity and class; of gender and sexuality; of health and age; of nation and country” (2016, p. 10).
As a culmination to the course, students were collectively co-authoring a book called Voices from the Jungle which is due to be published by Pluto Press in 2017.
As Lounasmaa (2016) aptly stated: “European politicians and citizens worry about the integration, employability and the cost of the refugees and migrants arriving in the EU. My experiences of teaching students in the Jungle show that access to education immediately upon arrival is one of the most important solutions to all three of these concerns. More importantly, it is a human right.”
The final benefit of this project was that it may play a substantial role in aiding future asylum claims for the residents. During the process, applicants are repeatedly interviewed and required to give persuasive narrative recounts in intricate detail of traumas from which they have escaped. Presenting a logical, coherent story is paramount to successful claims. (Merriman, 2016)
As an educator, I can see the amazing potential and value in replicating a similar initiative with primary-aged students. Hopefully, through using the narrative as a vehicle for voice, students can simultaneously process their prior journeys and begin to embark on a healing journey of their own.