The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recorded an average of 125,000 refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the last five years to what they hope to be a better life, eventually landing in Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta. On average, 1,000 lose their lives in the process.
There is no sign that the refugee crisis will abate in future. Unfortunately, many are numbed by what is now repetitive news, leaving it to the government, charities or UNHCR to deal with the crisis. In schools, where global perspectives and international understanding is actively debated, the discussion is more than often followed by questions such as “how can we help?”, or “what can we change?”.
As an international school, we seek to foster a global mindset that through our anti-discrimination policy leaves our differences at the school gates. With 54 nationalities, there are many whose home countries are at odds with their neighbours. Our young people are growing up in a complex world where we need to find our common humanity and value peace and international mindedness.
At Verdala International School (VIS), we have students from many families who moved to Malta to make a new life, some from thriving countries, some from troubled regions. We use our students’ experiences to enhance the curriculum and give real-life examples of culture, diversity and differences.
In addition, our Service Learning programme seeks to underpin a community mindset that goes beyond the self and takes action to help others, for example by connecting with local projects as well as with the Women’s Migrant Organisation and the Peace Lab. Indeed, some of our staff also get involved and offer their Monday nights to teach English to refugees in Valetta.
A group of pro-active parents have formed the VISFund Scholarship charity that sponsors a post-16 student through their IB diploma. It was with great pride that we witnessed our first such scholarship student – Kenza Lina – graduating from VIS. She was a worthy recipient, whose family fled religious persecution in Algeria to Malta where they have attempted to rebuild their life. Initially integrated into a Maltese school, her Gozo headmistress spotted the VIS scholarship advertisement for 16-year-olds and recommended her.
She was a worthy recipient, whose family fled religious persecution in Algeria to Malta
The VISFund is focused on offering education to a refugee who is academically deserving and demonstrates both the social-economic need and potential to benefit from this endeavour. However, this does not come without its challenges. The IB diploma is already a rigorous pre-university course without the added stresses of transition, home worries and possibly waiting on essential status paperwork. In addition, migrants have a very different lens on the world than most of us. Things we take for granted, such as making decisions about the future when so many doors are closed or even how to pay for a new pair of glasses, can be monumental for a family doing their best to survive in a new country, with very little money and many limitations.
We were encouraged by the UNHCR to pay special attention to the social-emotional aspect of any scholarship student we took on. As an institution, we did our best to integrate and nurture our new pupil, keeping a quiet eye on her well-being and mentoring her throughout the journey. Thankfully, this is a success story, but it was not an easy one. As a faculty, we have been taught humility and perspective as she developed her resilience and finally achieved her diploma, despite the obstacles.
VISFund is now starting its next fundraising phase in the hope of sponsoring further VIS refugee scholarships. With the war in the Ukraine taking its toll, more refugees are making their way down towards Malta. Like many international schools around the world, VIS has been thinking about how we can support families who have taken in Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. However, it does not matter where they come from, a refugee is a refugee; a displaced person who needs a fresh start and, in the case of children, definitely needs education.
The VISFund is considering applications for refugee scholarships for our sixth form IB courses starting this September. Anyone who wishes to apply should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org by September 2. Anyone who would like to contribute or find out more about the VISFund scholarship programme may visit the website www.visfund.org.