Russia’s terrible aggression against Ukraine is getting wall-to-wall coverage in all its catastrophic forms, and so it should. This conflict is scary enough as adults, but at least it’s not our first rodeo. For many of our young people, going from an unprecedented global pandemic to the threat of World War 3 in just two years is a dizzying experience.
That’s the case for all our students, but for many on our roll with associations with and heritage from Ukraine and Russia, their situation requires particular support. As a school we genuinely believe, at all times, that children need to be safe, secure and content in order to flourish. In that sense, these challenging times are no different. We have spaces where students can go should they need some quiet time and they always know who they can speak to ̶ their form tutor or a teacher they feel close to, a learning mentor, pastoral leader or even an older student/mentor.
Unlike the generalised fear we all have about escalation, however, some of our students are feeling anxious and nervous in a more specific way. They have loved ones in the war zone. Some have family members who have travelled back to the country to volunteer. Many recognise the places we are seeing on our screens.
So in the past week we have gone further. We have identified all those affected by the conflict, had one-to-one conversations with them so they could voice their concerns, allowed them time and space when they’ve needed it and let them know they have dedicated staff they can talk to.
Of course, their safety, security and contentment relies on more than us adults. The whole community has to support them. That’s why as a faith school we have also made the decision to include thoughts and prayers for those in Ukraine and those affected in Russia within our daily act of worship. We have also decided to educate and inform our students about events in this part of the world.
And I’m so proud of the work we’re putting in to develop what might be described as a protective curriculum. I recall being at school when the UK deployed its forces in the first Gulf War. I was a teenage girl who wore a hijab, and my surname was then Hussain. If anyone needed someone to talk to, it was me! Sadly, I had no such platform. I simply learned to shrug off remarks and comments made by peers and even teachers at the time as ‘just banter’, to deny the underlying racism of it all because it was just too awful to acknowledge. I remember walking into classrooms and saying “Don’t worry I won’t shoot” just to break the tension, albeit with humour. I wanted to get in there first and talk about the elephant in the room before the elephant came stampeding towards me.
So I’m also proud that I have this platform to share best practice and relate my story. Because the truth is that, as far as many of our students are concerned, this isn’t their first rodeo either. It’s right that this new conflict should be dominating the airwaves and most political forums, debates and discussions too. It’s right to talk about its effects on our students.
But I have taught children that have travelled from war-torn lands for over 20 years. This horrendous situation is only different in one key regard: Where were the outrage and the compassion for those killed or displaced and made destitute in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Syria and Yemen? Where was our concern as a profession for those in our schools and communities affected by those conflicts?
This week, while Black refugees being turned back or unaccountably delayed and mistreated at the Polish border received very little coverage, one reporter said of Ukrainian refugees: “These refugees are not like the others. They are blonde and blue-eyed.”
Our students have seen all of this, and they couldn’t have witnessed a more overt double standard. So now that we know what works to support conflict’s distant victims, let’s resolve to apply it equally to all.