In the aftermath of Paris terrorist attacks, a new wave of Islamophobia has found its way into some Muslim communities in Brazil. In late November, for instance, two women wearing a hijab were assaulted and threatened on the streets of Curitiba. This same wave is dividing public opinion and calling into question the government’s decision to offer a legal and secure avenue for Syrian refugees to arrive and find shelter in safe lands[i].
Islamophobia and narratives linking refugees to terrorism are present not only on the streets and mainstream media, but also in children’s perceptions of Islam and refugees. In a recent series of five educational, awareness-raising events[ii] intended to humanize refugee experiences, I started the discussion asking the kids, “does anyone know anything about refugees?”.
Although the answers saddened me, they did not surprise me. About two months ago, I heard from a 13-year-old girl that she was afraid of a Syrian family who was living in the same apartment building as her father. Her concerns come from the fear she holds that they could put a bomb in the building at any time.
After having this conversation, I felt that an educational project should be implemented in Brazilian schools in order to promote awareness and social and cultural integration of newcomers to hosting societies. Even though open border policies are indeed vital to ensure dignity and legal avenues for refugees, educational and integration programs should also be present to complement these policies, and such programs are currently lacking in Brazil. A conversation surrounding the experiences of refugees and forcibly displaced people was then initiated in South Brazil through the aforementioned pilot events in three different schools. By coincidence, the first conversation was scheduled for November 17th, just a few days after the attacks in Paris.
Speaking about the events, the majority of the over 250 children who participated did not know anything about refugees, and those who thought they knew, linked refugees to the terror in Paris. It did not cross their minds that refugees were the ones fleeing terror themselves, not because they were not capable of making such connection but simply because no one had ever spoken to them about the complexities underpinning the circumstances which give rise to so many individuals becoming ‘refugees’. Instead, the children gathered information from partial representations constructed by mainstream media and public discourse, in which Islam and refugees are frequently related to threats and terrorism.
The discussions were tailored to address this confusion, distinguishing refugees from terrorists and humanising the stories and experiences of forcibly displaced children. Additionally, the talks pointed out the implications of armed conflict in the lives of school-age children. To illustrate and enrich the conversation, Learning to Swim (LtS) was screened to the children. The young viewers were invited to identify their shared experiences of childhood, more precisely how they could see themselves in the lived experiences of Syrian displaced youth. They were also encouraged to recognize common dreams, hopes, emotional/familial connections and forms of play.
The intention behind these activities was to promote a space for reflection, in which participants could realize that, in spite of differences regarding nationality, language and culture, deep inside we all share similarities: many of us share similar dreams and desires for safety; we long for love and peace in the world; and most of us want a place that we can call and feel at home.
It was very rewarding to observe how the children’s perceptions about refugees were transformed throughout the events, especially after screening LtS. The documentary had a powerful impact on their view of refugees, which was then documented in drawings and letters written to Syrian displaced youth. The talks and LtS seemed essential to challenge dangerous discourses that link refugees and Islam to acts of terrorism, and, more importantly, the events made steps towards creating a sense of solidarity and empathic connections among apparently ‘different’ children who would not have likely otherwise encountered each other’s stories.
[i] Since 2013, the Brazilian government, in collaboration with UNHCR, has simplified the visa process and more than two thousand Syrians were granted refugee status. More information available at: http://www.unhcr.org/5615130c6.html.
[ii] The events at schools in Capivari de Baixo, Brazil, which occurred between the 17th and 23rd of November, were supported by Incentive Cultura and Parque Ambiental Tractebel.