We are delighted to host a guest post from Victoria Williamson, author of 'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' (to find out more about the book click here). The book tells the story of Reema, a Syrian refugee who moves to Scotland and befriends a feisty bully called Caylin.
Victoria Williamson is also a trained primary teacher and in this blog post she discusses an activity she uses with primary school children to help them to think about some of the issues faced by refugees, as well as how her book explores the connection between displacement and special objects.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, by the end of 2016, more than 65.6 million people in the world had been displaced, more than the population of the UK. One in every 113 people on the planet is a refugee, and nearly 20 people a minute are forcibly displaced due to conflict or persecution. Many people have to flee with just the clothes they stand up in or whatever is at hand, and even those with a little warning and time to pack face an unenviable dilemma: what to bring?
When teaching about refugee issues in the classroom, this is one of the activities I use to help children understand some of the problems that displaced people are faced with. I give each group a set of picture cards with objects ranging from those with direct use – a mobile phone, food and drink, matches, a passport – to those with more sentimental or long-term value – a photo album, jewellery and books – and ask them to choose only a certain number of items to include in the rucksack they must carry. The beauty of this simple exercise is that there are no right or wrong answers, and children can argue long and hard over the merits of including a pair of gloves over a raincoat, or a torch instead of a first aid kit.
Often objects of sentimental value trump those with an immediate and obvious use, and refugee reports from around the world are filled with accounts of the stories behind these small but treasured items. These objects are usually connected to a loved one lost or left behind, and are often the only physical reminder a displaced person has of their home. It isn’t just the object itself that has value, it’s the memories it evokes that makes it so important.
In The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, both Reema and Caylin have objects that mean a lot to them. For Reema, it’s her headscarf that reminds her of her brother. She describes how important this is to her in chapter two:
The taxi driver is friendly too, but I see the way he glances at the headscarves Mama and I are wearing. Even more than our second-hand clothes, these are what mark us out as foreign, different, alien. I know what he is thinking, how people here believe all Muslim women are covered up against their will and that I am far too young for this. I wish I could explain to him what this headscarf means to me. I wish I could tell him that this little scrap of cloth is all I have left of the country where I was born. One tiny fabric square – that is all I have to remind me of the bright-eyed boy who should be with us, who bought it for my birthday before the war.
We have not seen my brother Jamal since the night we fled Aleppo. I do not even know if he is dead or alive, and every time we move it feels as though I am travelling one step further away from him.
For Caylin, her happy childhood memories before her grandad died and her mother slid into depression are tied up with the My Little Pony toys her grandad used to buy for her. One of the kindest things she does in the story is to give some of her treasured ponies to Reema’s little sister Sara to make up for the toys she had to leave behind in Aleppo. In chapter 23 she explains:
I was mad about My Little Pony, and Grandad used to buy me a new one every Christmas and birthday. That’s why there are so many on Reema’s windowsill. I’m still not sure I should have given them away, but maybe Mum’s right, maybe it’s time.
“Sara will be so happy to see these,” Reema smiles as she finishes plaiting the white hair on the Cotton Candy pony. “She misses her toys from home. Thank you for sharing.”
“Yeah, well, I kept my favourite one,” I admit, a bit embarrassed. I still keep my Applejack pony on my nightstand so I can hold it when I’m feeling sad about Grandad. Maybe Reema with her headscarf that reminds her of her brother would understand that, but I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it yet.
Everyone has something that means a lot to them, but often doesn’t look like much at first glance, and in the classroom children love to hear about the stories of their teachers’ treasured items before they share their own. I often share the story of the little bead bracelet that reminds me of my grandmother, or the teddy bear my mother gave me when I was five that belonged to her when she was young. These objects would mean very little to anyone else – the elastic of the bracelet has overstretched over the years, and the teddy bear’s fur has mostly rubbed off and one eye is loose – but the memories attached to them contain the whole world of my childhood.
Next time you discuss refugee issues in the classroom, ask children what they would bring if they had to flee home and could carry just one precious thing away with them. Some of the stories they have to tell might just be worthy of novels of their own.
Victoria also has a growing collection of resources for teachers available on her website.
Many thanks to Victoria for sharing this blog post with us and for inviting me to be part of the blog tour. If you are interested in writing a guest blog post, please get in touch here or click here to find out more.