Syria, Cross-border
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The Woman on a Mission to Change Educational Standards for Refugee Children

Originally from Hong Kong but spending a good portion of her adult life in the Middle East and United States, Alexandra Chen is a woman on a mission. Her passion for the region was born after her first visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, where she observed many of the stresses and traumas that accompany daily life there. After the visit, she ended up teaching dance — something that has been a lifelong passion of hers — in a refugee camp. Dance worked as a beautiful, therapeutic method of interaction with the children, communicating with them in a way that transcended words. Through that experience she learned many things and understood the impact of movement and art in shaping feelings of belonging, identity and growth in young refugee children.

Alexandra went on to help develop a psychosocial program centered on dance and movement as therapy for refugee girls from ages 10 – 14 in Za’atari Refugee Camp, located in Northern Jordan outside of the city of Mafraq, as well as a psychosocial program for adolescent boys which utilized martial arts as an expressive outlet to get the boys active and inspired by healthy male role models.The program focused on adolescents at risk — either of sexual exploitation or involvement in drug-related street gangs and related mental health problems — and sought to help them harness their own inner strength while finding comfort and support in building a positive and culturally-relevant community of hope. Working with UNICEF and Mercy Corps for over two years in the Syria crisis lent Alexandra the tools and intimate lens she needed to understand and pinpoint some of the issues that plague educational development in the region for refugee children. “At the end of the day, after every conflict or crisis there’s a rush to put children back into school, but we forget that these children are not the same children as they were before the war. They suffer absurd levels of stress as refugees, and just because they’re not in immediate danger doesn’t mean they have not been profoundly impacted. The schools should adopt different approaches to help the children cope with the daily stressors they go through,” she says.

Thinking of movement as therapy, Alexandra began to develop ways to incorporate that into activities accessible for children living in interim camps. “I was fascinated by the power of art in healing and growing and the process of self-expression. I think dance, movement and art have the power to create an inner peace that allows children to focus and learn – to recenter themselves. It gives them that focused space where they are able to learn and hone in on their skills and discover who they are. I began thinking of ways we can integrate that into everyday schooling so that more children can benefit,” she adds.

Now, Alexandra is working on her PhD studying the of impact trauma on the child brain. Alexandra says that the the profound impact the toxic stress of being a refugee day in day out, the need to survive and constantly deal with an internal lack of safety and security, and feelings of discrimination all have a fundamental impact on a child’s ability to focus and learn. Her goal is to develop a better strategy for refugee education — to create materials, methods and techniques for governments and humanitarian actors that will allow children to recover, to process, and to be able to learn again in a safe environment that encourages their growth.

What do you think can be done to improve education for refugee children? Tell us in the comments below!

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