Thilal Halimah is a PhD candidate in Psychology & Education, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. This article originally appeared in The Pen, The Aziz’s Foundation’s scholars blog.
I first became interested in researching the resilience of refugee children when I met Abdurahman, a seven-year old Syrian refugee child who moved to Jordan with his family. It was seven years ago when we met in Zarqaa city in Jordan. I was there to visit family and seek out voluntary work to support refugee children in schools and local centres.
The details of our meeting are engraved in my memory; his serious facial expressions, the dry and cracked skin on his little hands and his adult-like demeanour. His eyes spoke a million words of the suffering he endured when he lived in Deraa in Syria, right opposite the Omari mosque where the Syrian revolution first kicked off in 2011. Before long, his home had been demolished, his father tortured by the forces of Assad, as a result of which he was left with a life-changing disability from spinal injuries.
My task was simple: I was asked to convince Abdurahman to go back to school as he was refusing to go. His neglected childhood still manifested itself in our session through his colourful drawings depicting his neighbourhood as he remembered it before and after the war. In our discussions on how to bridge the gap between the Syria of war and the Syria of peace, Abdurahman talked about the role of education.
I was in awe of his awareness and resilient mind-set, but deeply concerned about the multi-layered environmental factors that led him to be withdrawn from school. This ranged from passive pressure to support his struggling father to make a living for his family, bullying, poverty and discrimination. I will never forget the moment he proudly yet anxiously walked into school again after a three-week absence, only to be reprimanded by his headteacher for not being in school uniform and threatened that if he missed school again, he would be permanently excluded. As a teacher myself, I was speechless.
Abdurahman’s experience, and the experiences of many other similar children I met highlighted to me that children’s resilience, or the lack of it, depends greatly on their environments. My academic reading indicates just the same. Ann Masten, a pioneer in this field, refers to resilience as, ‘ordinary magic’. That is, to be resilient during or after adversity is extraordinary, but the pathway towards resilience is ordinary.
When children overcome difficult situations, it may be due to special talents or resources they have, but in most cases it just reflects ordinary human resources like support from competent parents, school and other opportunities. Ensuring that these environmental factors are present, strong and resourceful gives children the opportunities to develop their resilience, which in turn gives them a sense of dignity in being self-sufficient.
While volunteering to support refugee children at grassroots level is immensely rewarding, I believe that real change happens in our communities through rigorous research that aims to influence policies and wider societies. This is why I quit my job as a London teacher and embarked on a PhD degree at the University of Cambridge, which is supported by the Jordanian organisation ‘Queen Rania Foundation’, which deals with finding solutions to educational challenges in Jordan through research.
My ambition for my research is to contribute to the ongoing refugee educational research in Jordan, much of which focuses on the theme of resilience.
In the near future, my research will take me to the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world: Zaatari, in Jordan. There, my task is to explore how resilience is promoted in the educational experiences of refugee children. The Zaatari happens to be the same camp where Abdurahman first lived in before moving to Zarqaa city in Jordan.
At a time when the refugee child is fed with messages of vulnerability and powerlessness, my aim is to inspire hope and reform, and possibly to help re-represent refugee children as a prototype of resilience rather than a symbol of weakness, both to the child themselves and to the world.