Democratic Education Champions is our regular piece about projects and people who are contributing to the movement. In this first piece our Marketing and Fundraising Manager, Jamie Green, met up with Danny Nasr to talk about how democratic education is being used to help those affected by the neighbouring Syria conflict.
It’s been impossible to avoid pictures and videos of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe over the last 12 months. Lebanon, a country of only 4 million people, has had a huge surge of refugees from neighbouring Syria conflict. Life is extremely difficult for these refugees who are excluded from participating in aspects of society, including education which only 20% of refugee children have access to.
Danny Nasr is a Beirut-born campaigner on this issue who is the director of ‘Migrants of Circumstance’ and the Education Officer at Goldsmiths College SU. We met at the Lewisham-based campus, which seems like a different world from Plage Nour - the Syrian refugee camp where he embarked on this educational project that uses collaboration.
Danny tells me about the project’s somewhat unexpected roots in his interest in design: ‘I was a design student, it was my final year and I was looking at different ways of looking at design and one I got interested in was democratic design - a kind of collaborative, participatory and community-centric design’. He explains the issues with the mainstream definition of this, which is often ‘capitalistic’ and refers to design that is cheap and sustainable. He wanted to explore its more socially useful form.
One may not instantly see the relevance of democratic design to educating refugees, Danny would later use it to develop an open source platform that refugee communities could use. However in the first instance he merely wanted to help refugees with his interests in mind:
‘I started in 2014 … it was a few kilometres outside Tripoli and the problem was that, at that time, Tripoli was a war zone so it was difficult coming back and forth, but I managed 5 visits between 2014 and 2015. The idea was to build relations with the people of that community and eventually start working towards developing something ... but at that point I didn’t know what it was and I was just experimenting with democratic design and kind of using participatory design as a mechanism and a tool. ‘
Danny noticed the lack of education in the Plage Nour refugee community and began running workshops with them and other refugee communities around the country. These were used to compare the different contexts and stories within these communities.
The democratic elements of the project began when he visited one makeshift school and gave each child a camera, asking them to capture things of interest and bring it back the next day. ‘That allowed me to have that gained insight and curation of their everyday experience. One of the things many of them focused on was the idea of home or the lack thereof and education … a lot of pictures were centred on their school because that was seen as a space where they felt safe’
Danny realised the importance of school to many of these children having been forcibly displaced and possibly going without learning for months or even years at a pivotal time in their development. On the website of Migrants of Circumstance, there are even pictures of children shouting ‘We want school’.
After using the workshops to create a working model for teaching, Danny began using some of the ideas of democratic design to begin developing a curriculum framework. Bringing together different voices from the Plage Nour community, he facilitated an evaluation of the different areas in which the children needed to progress: ‘It obviously wasn’t an institutionalised education … it had to be very culturally contingent on what things [the children] value and how this translates into a curriculum’. As a result, they focused on 4 main pillars: trade, self-expression, wellbeing and safe space.
Danny tells me that, although members of the community came forward to deliver lessons and workshops on these pillars, the arrangement had to remain informal as refugee settlements are still illegal in Lebanon. Many of the refugee communities are atomised or have been broken down into smaller ones making communication difficult and putting up further barriers to education.
The project was helped by a crowdfunding campaign which produced £3000 of initial investment money to buy resources and pay teachers. The Plage Nour project began with 20 children and recently peaked at 40, running two distinct programmes. One programme is for younger years which also offers Maths and Arabic, in addition to the main ‘pillars’, for those who are 5 or under.
The second programme, which is more vocational, includes things like gold leafing, wood work and hairdressing taught by locals. The vocational programme is now in second stage of a pilot where a 15 year old member of the community is teaching some of mothers in Plage Nour to create art from recycled materials in order to develop their skills too.
I point out that the creation of the curriculum and its pillars are certainly collaborative, but I ask Danny how it plays out in the classroom:‘On the vocational side of it, it’s very much student led, so the entire thing is centred around experience, and experience informs the development of curriculum and the development of knowledge.’
He goes on to explain that the academic side is more ‘institutionalised’ partly because of the need to teach basic numerical and literacy skills to younger years, but he hopes to make the classroom more collaborative in future pilots. He links this to his current plan to bring together different academics at his University in order to build a working group that can explore embedding collaboration in the curriculum, before packaging it into an open source platform that other refugee communities can use.
Whilst talking through some of the basic elements of the programme, we agree that one of the key strengths of making such a programme democratic is its responsiveness. The way Phoenix Education Trust often promotes democracy helps school to meet Ofsted criteria of responsiveness to children’s needs and this premise seems vital in the experience of refugees:
‘When they come and they’ve moved, they’ve obviously come through a certain set of experiences … either anxieties or they’ve developed some sort of PTSD and that’s really common.’ He tells me how he’s also worked with various NGOs who deal with trauma to address those various needs in teaching.
‘Migrants of Circumstance’ is an ongoing project in Plage Nour and across Lebanon. Danny tells me some of the biggest help he needs now is academic minds to enhance the curriculum and design the platform. Money is also key, because although the programme had some successes - £3000 hasn’t stretched that far and it will certainly need donors in the future.
I found my meeting with Danny a fascinating one that gave me an insight into the crisis in Lebanon and how communities are still rallying to accommodate those who have left their homes. When I ask the overall importance of why he believes democracy is so important in this programme, he perhaps gets to the core of why democratic education is important more universally:
‘I think the major thing is, because those people have a certain set of experiences and needs, they need to be the centre of that education’
Please visit http://migrantsofcircumstance.com/ to find out more about the project
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