Day 2: Thursday 18 July, 2019
Christie Lin, United States
Though it’s only been two days, there’s so much we’ve learned even in the past 48 hours that it’s as though we’ve already been here for a week. The mountains and valleys we pass by every morning on the way to Jeb Jennine are already becoming familiar sights.
On the first day, we received a general orientation that contextualized the work that Jusoor is doing with emergency education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Today, training on cultural sensitivity and psychosocial wellbeing of the children empowered us volunteers to be more thoughtful and effective in the classrooms. On cultural sensitivity, we talked about everything from appropriate physical contact with adults and children (in Lebanon, they kiss 3 times as a greeting, right/left/right cheek – this differs in Jordan, and also in Palestine) to the cues we might see children use to communicate even if we don’t speak the same language (an eyebrow raise, combined with a ‘tsk,’ indicates a firm ‘no’). On psychosocial wellbeing, we talked about the physiological impact of trauma and toxic stress on a child’s growth and learning (PTSD and toxic stress dramatically reduce brain size and the number of neural connections formed at a critical age), and the importance of routines in creating a safe, stable environment to positive, healthy memories instead.
While there were a number of other tidbits we learned about cultural sensitivity and psychosocial wellbeing that were in turns surprising and heart-rending, my overall takeaway was the importance of not only understanding the children’s minds and culture, but also examining how we understand ourselves as ‘volunteers.’ Sometimes it’s easy to forget is how attuned children are to their worth as reflected by the environment around them. They pick up not just on what we tell them about themselves in words, but what we tell them with our actions. Our actions, in turn, are informed by how we see ourselves both consciously and subconsciously – perhaps mistakenly as saviors, as friends, as sympathizers, when we are just volunteer teachers operating within the confines of a three-week timespan.
Our mistaken perceptions of ourselves can have consequences, made concrete by several anecdotes that Allie Chen, a child psychiatrist and our trainer, shared from her work with refugee children. It might be tempting for us to be ‘friends’ with our students and to let them form emotional attachments, or to see ourselves as ‘saviors’ performing a good deed. It’s easy to forget that we are, after three weeks, again parting with children who might have felt loss and dehumanization acutely before. But there are 8-year-olds who already ask, “what is it about us that makes people leave? Is it because we are poor and dirty?” and there are 9-year-olds who already have had to grapple with the notion that those who help only do so to post their suffering on Instagram.
While I am hopeful for all that we can share with the students and teachers this summer, today was a reminder that that good intentions can still lead to harm without an appropriate dose of humility and empathy. I am grateful that Jusoor spent time opening our eyes so that broad intentions might be paired with critical reflection to create a better experience for students, teachers, and volunteers across these next few weeks, and can’t wait to see what comes next!