It seems only a month ago that the biggest problem we were all facing was the global COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, recent events have presented us all with an additional challenge, a war that is affecting Europe, indeed the world, with consequences, many of which are yet to be determined.
As an international school we are acutely aware of the need of a safe harbour for all our students. Many of them are third-culture kids (TCKs) who have not lived in their own home countries for a long time. They stay connected to their roots through their language, their relatives, visits back home, social media and indeed friendships formed with cultural buddies in the host country.
We celebrate our multiculturalism with international gatherings, to share each other’s food, where flags are seen as a celebration of home-culture, not used as a personal statement.
We are a school that prides itself on diversity, inclusiveness and our international-mindedness; as such we have to acknowledge the difficulties going on in the home countries and globally. However, it has become clear that our campus has to be a neutral space where everyone, Russians and Ukrainians alike, must feel safe, whatever the political situation back home.
Our campus has to be a neutral space where everyone, Russians and Ukrainians alike, must feel safe
One of our guiding principles is “We trust that a caring inclusive community will help build a sense of self-worth and a profound respect for others”. Thus, when this war broke out, we took measures to ensure everyone in our community feels that safety. Initially this meant communication: with staff, students and parents, to remind them that we have an anti-discrimination policy and core values that focus on kindness and respect.
In the past, we reminded our students of how fortunate they were to live during peacetime. For most school-age children, there is no real understanding of what it means to live through a war; they relate to it only through grandparent stories, films or history lessons that most likely included the impact of the Cold War, spheres of influence and sovereignty. The closest they might get to outcomes is through a community service programme that enhances social responsibility by “taking action”, such as our engagement in migrant and refugee projects at the Maltese Peace Lab or Women’s Migrant Organisation.
At Verdala International School, we have families who have themselves fled the conflict in Libya and Syria; they have their own stories of hardship and intolerance; one might ask why is this war any different?
Perhaps the answer lies in the sweeping global impact; previously our students were sheltered from the atrocities of war, feeling more remote or disconnected. Now they are hearing words like ‘nuclear weapons’ or ‘World War III’, rhetoric unheard of since the 1980s.
This war feels a lot closer for European countries, and along with it, an anxiety that is affecting our young people. Our students are paying attention to this war, finding it difficult to process the events as they unfold, struggling to navigate the social media that is swamped with images and scenarios.
We, like other schools, have had to address this carefully and sensitively. We have reached out to all our families directly affected by the conflict, but also age-appropriately supported our students to have time to unpack their thoughts and worries.
Our curriculum is driven by the International Baccalaureate framework, whose mission statement aims to “encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right”.
We need to allow our students to address the elephant in the room; the background, the trauma, the propaganda and long-term consequences that could affect us all.
We acknowledge that beyond the school gates there are matters beyond our control. However, as the international school of choice on the island, we are a multicultural community that will always return to its own values of respect and compassion, finding a way to focus on our shared humanity.
Perhaps this was best demonstrated when one of our Russian students was seen comforting a fellow Ukrainian peer, desperately worried about his family back home. It was one time we put social distancing rules aside, as the hug said it all.