Saturday, January 8, 2011

A tale of two refugee cities

I had a chance to see both a warm, high-functioning school and a less than ideal school. The less than ideal refugee school was a school of Muslim Rohingya Burmese students with English-speaking Malaysian teachers. Teachers at the less than model school use a cane. They didn’t just use the cane for corporal punishment if someone breaks a serious rule. They also used it for managing every other kind of behavior, from the small (getting the kids’ attention) to the bigger (kids disrupting the lessons). It was even used for something as simple as getting kids to transition from recess to their math lesson. The teachers I saw did not hit the children with the cane when I was there. The teacher I saw raised her cane in the air, bugged out her eyes in anger, and started yelling and slamming the cane onto the desks, next to each child, to intimidate the kids into focus for the math lesson. After great dramatic cane flourish, the kids slowly started their work. My kids in their soft, protective international school would have jumped to attention, their hearts racing at such a performance.
The cane was then placed on a chair in the front of the class (see last picture above), as if the real teacher at the head of the class was the cane. It was the cane who was seen as being in charge, the ultimate authority. I asked the Head Teacher to help me understand how the cane is used and how it’s seen as effective or ineffective. She explained that they used the cane based on Malaysian laws that allow the cane to be used in official government schools, but only thwacked on the palm of the child’s hand, for punishment; I’ve since found out that Malaysian schools also allow kids to be caned on clothed buttocks.
She said that they found the cane to be absolutely essential in running a class given that most of these kids come from a culture where children’s behavior has been socialized using a cane. But, the cane can become ineffective with the tougher kids to manage. When they thwack these kids’ palms, the kids pretty much look up at them saying “Thank you, may I have one more please?” to prove that they are immune to caning since their parents do much more violent corporal punishment at home. Then, when the misbehaving child won’t respond to the cane and continues to break their rules, the Head Teacher threatens to tell the child’s parents, knowing the child will be scared to return home to a beating. I had a moment envisioning US policy of extradition, sending our prisoners to places like Egypt where they could interrogate them using torture, unrestricted by more humane, less torturous laws in the U.S.
I am interested in examining if refugee child behaviors get more problematic the longer they are stuck in Malaysia before placement in safe countries like the U.S. and Australia. For example, there were no behavior problems at the warm, high-functioning Karen Burmese refugee school I visited where the typical wait til placement to the U.S. is 3 to 4 years in Malaysia. The Karen are Christian with strong support from their Karen community and strong support for placement to the U.S. from Christian U.S. congressmen. The students sleep at the school during the week with their teachers who are also Karen refugees. They eat upstairs at a Karen community cafeteria with almost 200 other community members for every meal. The Karen community leader checks in on the school constantly, with his quiet presence.
The Karen teachers were young but pleasant, positive, calm and interested. They were all refugees. I asked one teacher about her family’s journey. Her picture is the first photo above, where she is making beaded necklaces. She said her parents and a couple siblings had escaped Burma before her and were in Malaysia for a couple years then placed in the U.S. Of all the places they were placed, they are now living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Yes, the dream retirement, bucolic and intellectually stimulating home of New Yorkers and more. I told her I knew Americans who wished they could live in Chapel Hill. Her parents told her it was very peaceful in Chapel Hill with ample work and that she would get placed there in a year or two.
The Karen teachers were stumped when I asked them what behavior problems they had. I asked what they do to get the kids’ attention when they return from recess to English studies. They said they would simply ask the children to be quiet, and then the children would be quiet. I was stunned. It was easier teaching these Karen refugee kids than teaching in a relatively well-resourced and well-trained Brooklyn public school.
The Karen teachers then remembered that one 3 year old had bitten another child recently (see adorable little girl in photo above). I immediately thought of how my 3 year old had bitten someone else at his posh international school during his first month. The Karen teachers said the 3 year old had recently learned her father had died when he’d returned to Burma to help another Karen community member escape. He’d actually been killed. She was struggling with it, still asking when her father was coming back. They said her young mother was having trouble coping and parenting. The girl was staying in the school overnite all week long, as most of the other Karen children do, and I looked around her seeing all the supportive teachers and fun older peers entertaining her. I knew she’d do fine. In fact, if we used a Western model of her needing one-on-one therapy to deal with her grief, therapy might just make things worse for her, when she already has all the support she needs in her Karen community already.
Click video here to see happy Karen refugee children during free play time. Karen children play with a pole in free-form long-jump joy while Rohingya children stay stuck in their desk-cluttered area for recess, unable to go outside. All refugee kids cannot ever play outside, due to threat of deportation.
In contrast, the Rohingya Burmese are Muslim and neither the U.S. nor the Muslim countries seem to want them. Not even Malaysia, a largely Muslim country, wants them. To appease outside countries, the Malaysian government claimed they’d allow the Rohingyas to work legally, but that was 6 years ago and everyone’s lost hope of that happening. The Rohingya refugees have been here for 18 years, on average, with little to no hope of placement in a safe country. The leader of the Rohingya advocacy I met with said the kids had lost all hope and that a beggar culture had developed. Some Rohingya parents would not send their kids to school and tell them they would beat them at the end of the day if they didn’t return home with $20 from begging. Most of the moms are using their babies to beg, til late in the night. And, many refugee mothers have been selling their babies into baby trafficking, often into adoption but also often as prostitution slaves when they get as old as age 6. That’s the worst of it.
For the most part, the Rohingya families are coping as best, and often worst, as they can given that they have no hope for a future here. There is not a supportive community for the children when everyone is just scrambling to survive. As a consequence, I think, the Rohingya refugee school was much more rowdy, disruptive and very hard for the teachers to control.