A small origami boat sits on a school desk. Closer inspection of it reveals a message written in purple handwriting: ‘We are all just flesh and blood, skin and bone.’ It is written by a nine-year-old student about refugees.
In such uncertain and chaotic times globally, adults might sometimes do well to listen to the thoughts and ideas of children, this school project in East Sussex has shown.
Students at Christ Church CE Primary School in St Leonards-on-Sea were asked to think about what messages they would like to give people about the refugee crisis, migrants and immigration.
And what they came up with left both teachers and education specialists from charity project partners Migrant Help UK very moved. Designing and building origami boats made of paper, they then decorated them with messages of hope, tolerance and welcome.
Among the messages were ‘Treat refugees kindly and remember that they are humans too’, ‘We are all the same’, ‘Be friends, welcome them to make the world better’ and ‘Sorry for the loss of your loved ones’.
The project followed on from a meeting a small group of students from the school had with migrants being supported by the charity earlier this summer.
The school itself has a significant migrant, refugee and ethnic minority population with 21 different languages and 15 different ethnic groups represented within it.
Two classes of children aged nine and ten, met with the charity’s Head of Education Alex Ntung and education specialist Dr Jonathan Barnes. They were also joined by artist Bern O’Donoghue, who came up with the original idea last year.
Bern, from Brighton, launched the art project Refugee Crossing in 2015 using small, colourful paper boats to carry words challenging popular misconceptions about refugees and migrants. They are deliberately placed in public places, such as stations, bus stops and pedestrian crossings, to make passers-by think.
To date, she has sent out nearly 7,000 paper boats in answer to requests from communities in the UK, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Greece and the USA. People are encouraged to share pictures of boats they have placed on their social media accounts using the hashtags #refugeecrisis and #MigrantLivesMatter.
Introducing the subject of refugee boats in the Mediterranean, Bern asked the students to think about parallel situations in their own lives, such as moving house, changing school, being in a new place, and what might help them to settle in.
She said: “This helped them to think about what our response could or should be to migrants fleeing war and persecution. Among the themes that emerged were friendship, kindness, fairness, home and safety. All of them suggested an understanding and clarity about humanitarian values.”
Alex, a former refugee himself, said: “I was very moved by the messages the students came up with. You could see they had thought very carefully about it. What they said was direct and insightful. I think we, as adults, sometimes forget that some of the most effective messages and ideas are often the most simple.”
Headteacher Anne Hanney said: “Over many years our church school has welcomed migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to our school. Lately they are coming to us from different countries but their needs are similarly great. The project gave the children a chance to reflect upon their own lives and situations as well as those faced by others.”
Jonathan revealed that the project had given children from non-UK backgrounds the confidence to speak about their own experiences.
He added: “It was amazing to see that the discussion we had in class made some of the children feel like they could talk about what they had gone through. That, for me, was a very significant thing for us all to have achieved.”