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A Burning Motivation To Learn Helps Students From War Zones Beat the Odds

These are young people sold on school, kids who want more than anything to be inside a classroom.
44-year-old Syrian refugee Hudur Omar Ilgeya lectures the refugee children at a temporary education centre in Reyhanli District of Hatay, Turkey on Nov. 23, 2016.
44-year-old Syrian refugee Hudur Omar Ilgeya lectures the refugee children at a temporary education centre in Reyhanli District of Hatay, Turkey on Nov. 23, 2016.

Delivering education in emergency situations, such as in refugee camps or war zones, is fraught with challenges. Beside the usual mundane logistical needs of any school and the ongoing task of ensuring quality of learning, schools serving vulnerable populations have additional challenges like figuring out how to teach kids who have experienced trauma, whose home situation is unstable, or who cannot speak the local language of the host country.

But one major problem of education is often already solved in such situations: motivation. Research is increasingly recognizing the pivotal role played by motivation in the learning process. When someone is personally driven to learn something, there is a better chance they will be successful at school. I have seen this in my own teaching of graduate students in Canada. When the stakes are raised — for instance, the penalty for failing an assignment is higher, or the reward for a good assignment greater — they rise to the occasion. The same students can submit work of vastly varying quality in response to their level of motivation. But when students think they can squeak by without investing too much in their learning, they will. Every learner has competing priorities, and motivation is an indicator that moves one's education up or down on the ladder of those priorities.

But what strikes me about education in countries experiencing war is that the motivation challenge for educators is less acute, because a girl whose made it to a classroom in Afghanistan, or a Syrian refugee boy whose made it to a school in a strange new country has already had to fight so hard to get there, their motivation is in overdrive. These children understand profoundly that education opens doors, and they in particular need such doors opened if their future is to be different from their present.

Take for instance, Dunia, a student who attended the Al Salam School, a school supported by the Canada-based charity, the Syrian Kids Foundation, in Reyhanli, Turkey. Dunia ended up there after her father was killed by the Syrian regime in 2012, forcing her and her surviving family to flee. She changed school three times during high school due to bombardments. At Al Salam, Dunia graduated at the top of her class, scoring 97.7 per cent on her diploma. She volunteered with an obstetrician in Turkey, and watching babies being born, discovered her career goal, explaining "when the war in Syria is over, Syria will need many educated people, particularly doctors." She scored highly on the IELTS English exam, and earned admission to Montreal's Concordia University on scholarship, where she now maintains a 3.9 GPA, studies biochemistry, and has been invited to join the university's Golden Key society for academic excellence.

Or there's Mohamad, another Al Salam student, who fled Raqaa to Turkey after the city was overtaken by ISIS. Leaving behind his bombed neighbourhood and the memory of young friends killed there, he arrived in Turkey not speaking a word of English. After working for a few months to help his family subsist, he found his way to the Al Salam School, ultimately completing his secondary education. He studied intensively, performed well on the TOEFL exam, was sponsored by the Syrian Kids Foundation to come to Canada to study, and was accepted at Concordia, where he too, is in the top 15 per cent of his class, and is studying to be a computer engineer.

These are young people sold on school, kids who want more than anything to be inside a classroom. And it's not just children and youth: consider the adult women — most of them mothers or grandmothers — who sign up in droves to the basic literacy classes of the Afghanistan Reads! program of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. A 65-year-old illiterate farmer woman who has survived civil war, the Taliban, birthing and raising eight kids, grinding poverty, and a life of long days labouring at home and in the fields, and has made it to a literacy classroom with her book open in front of her with her finger on the first page, to learn the first letter of the alphabet, I think we can agree, is motivated.

In poor countries and countries at war, a myriad of elusive conditions have had to come together to result in that moment when a child steps foot in a classroom on their first day of school. Firstly, that child needs to live somewhere where there actually is a school. Next, they need to have been born to parents who support their desire to go to school, a factor disproportionately sidelining girls from the classroom. That child also needs to live in a family that can afford the costs of schooling — books, clothes, supplies — and the lost opportunity cost by not having the child work for income or do household chores, a risk especially acute for those displaced and trying to make ends meet in a new place.

Families also need to feel confident enough that their child will be safe at school, that they will not be subjected to abuse, discrimination, or often for girls — harassment or assault on the way to school. That child needs to be healthy enough, mentally and physically, to attend school, and to be well enough fed to be able to concentrate on learning. And finally, that child needs to be motivated enough to overcome all these barriers — barriers school children typically don't have to face in countries like Canada — to make school happen in a context where more immediate needs like food and shelter can all too easily push education out of the picture, forever.

Not all kids living amidst war or fleeing it have access to education, or can manage to go to school. But we must recognize what it has taken to get there, for those kids who do manage to end up in a classroom. We must do what we can to support them not only because it is the right of every child — no matter their circumstances — to have an education, but also because these kids are the best chance their countries have to rebuild and secure peace when, as adults, they inherit shattered countries that need to be made whole again.

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