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Good to be in school but….

What lies in the secret recess of the heart of a teenage refugee? How can one who has grown up in a stable and peaceful place fully comprehend the insecurities and frustrations that come with living life in limbo, coping with disrupted dreams and restricted freedom?

On most days, students enter the gate with cheerful greetings and smiling countenances. These are the more fortunate students who manage to make it to school, and they know it. Still, there are challenges. One usually spirited 12-year-old boy from a particular community shook his head morosely and replied in a manner beyond his age when asked about his life: “Life is hard, teacher. Life is hard.” His life is confined to school and his rented apartment, where he is afraid to go downstairs to play. The security guards come and harass the young people playing there. He was dribbling a soccer ball in the living room, with a toddler cousin trailing behind, in between our conversations with his mother whom we visited.

Similarly, a few other girls risk being harassed as they pass the security post of their estate on their way to and from school. “Teacher, I can’t come for after-school remedial lessons as there is tension in my estate. I dare not go home without my friends,” one of them reported. Half-believing and not fully understanding what she was trying to convey, I visited her family. It came to light that the cause was religious prejudice and that her brother became a victim one night. What can one do about injustices when one is stateless and voiceless?

It’s good to be in school, but….

There are those who live in cramped conditions. It is challenging for them to find private space for studies and homework, not to mention the cost of electric bills, and the lack of Internet, which many of us take for granted. It takes determination and motivation for them to do their homework and if quality work is submitted on time, it is a commendable achievement.

Other challenges prevail. Chronically sick parents require their attention. “Teacher, I can’t come to school because my father needs me to go with him to the hospital tomorrow,” a 14-year-old told me several times. She is the eldest daughter in the family, and culturally, it is her duty to visit the doctor with her father. I wondered why other options were not considered to prevent her from missing a whole day of school. By the look on her face, she might have wondered at the fuss I was making. It’s “family before self” in their culture, an alien concept to many of us in more privileged settings.

The idea of education for teenage girls is strange. It even alienates the family from their own community, due to resulting jealousies. It takes a lot for the family to put the girl through school and not submit to pressures of early marriages. Another teenage girl from the same community disappeared from school as she was needed at home. We fear that she may abandon her earlier resolution to stay in school. A chance at education is a step towards breaking the poverty cycle.

Yet another student took a week’s leave from school when his father was hospitalised. He was needed at the hospital as an interpreter as he is the only one in the family who can speak English. His father has suffered from ill health since young due to poor living conditions and a hard life.

Cultural expectations and familial obligations are counter-currents that some students face as they swim upstream to elevate their station in life. How many will have the stamina not to succumb to the currents, and undercurrents, that constantly threaten to pull them downstream? How many will finally bend and buckle under the weight of pressures on their young shoulders?

It’s good to be in school, but….

Family circumstances may dispirit some, dimming their aspirations and diminishing their goals into oblivion. Behind some vacant seats in the classroom are stories of family violence that threatened to tear apart the family; dysfunctional adults who could not get a handle on life, not to mention the welfare of their offspring.

Persecutions, chronic sicknesses, expectations both cultural and familial, broken families…

It’s good to be in school, but….

Amidst this, one student’s testimony lifted my spirit. In an upbeat tone, she quoted “there is no perfect moment, but we can make the moment perfect.”

The students’ presence may be like “vapour in the air”, their voices “echoes in the wind”. But I wish that in this tough journey, they will find their “wind inside their sails”, “their anchor in the waves”; and that “fire in their veins” that keeps their hopes burning bright.

It is good to be in school.

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