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Society and Culture

Invisible students

After taking part in a teaching project working with education centers that take students forced to move due to political violence in Colombia, teacher Ángela Victoria Vera Márquez turned her focus to the invisibility that tends to affect this subject. She presented two studies that show different nuances of the same story.

  Photos: Alberto Sierra/Milagro Castro
By Denise Danielle Bourne


When Ángela Vera was a student in her home town of Ibagué, she discovered polyphony. This was not polyphony in the strict musical sense, but a way to rescue the accounts and multiple voices of all agents in their contexts and make of them a sympony that brings each one recognition, making them participants in their own melody.

As a student, she had the chance to work on the Schools that educate and cure project run jointly by the Universidad del Rosario and the Universidad de Ibagué, financed by the Inter- American Development Bank and the Japan Program. The aim of this program was to train different representatives of the educational community who on a daily basis receive children who have suffered forced displacement through political violence in Colombia, thus helping them in their adaptation process, and not just the children either; their parents and classmates are also aided.

The experience showed Vera that this type of student is constantly invisible, sometimes because the teaching staff are unaware they have pupils in these circumstances, at others because the families of the students do not want people to know about their forced displacement, or because the actual education centres do not possess the tools to meet the needs of this group. It is worth pointing out that thanks to this discovery, the book Los estudiantes invisibles (Invisible Students) came out, written jointly w ith researchers Francisco and R odrigo Parra.
 
With this as a cornerstone, Vera asked for permission to delve deeper into the stories uncovered by this study and, based on this, created two research articles: one based on the situation in schools, and the other from the point of view of the children themselves.
                      

The school must prove to be a safe consultation space not just academically but also for reinforcing personal skills that allow the right development for pupils.


THE PROBLEM LOOKED AT FROM THE SCHOOL ANGLE
Professor Vera’s first study, Dynamics of subjectivation and inclusion in a school setting, analyzes the way in which an educational community perceives a child in a forced displacement situation, underlining that in some cases Colombian schools, facing exceptional population demands—often the reason for a school’s creation—as inclusive spaces, must be the initiators of healthy interpersonal relations for all the students that make up their community, as well as proving one of the vital figures in preventing risks for vulnerable groups.

“Just as city children might come to a school from situations of povery that expose them to social exclusion, children can also arrive from circumstances of forced displacement, which besides requiring an inclusive space, also calls particulary for an affective space since, in addition to having lived through different circumstances and normal conflicts in their development processes, they also face the emergence of traumatic experiences due to political violence,” stresses Vera.

The schooling stage involves normal difficulties for pupils, such as establishing positive emotional relations with classmates and teachers, achieving good marks, understanding the content of some subjects, and many other aspects, all of which combine with possible traumas and unresolved conflicts caused by a situation of forced displacement. These can lead to another series of emotional and social problems. It is here where the school fulfils an additional role and can prove a safe
consultation space not just academically but also for reinforcing personal skills that allow correct development and recovery for pupils.

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Meanwhile, the study revealed difficulties in training and the understanding of the role of teachers faced by such difficulties, showing that these educators do not have the right tools to take them on. This is the basis for the research recommendations, which propose working on collective construction of integrated pedagogical ideas allowing for the contextualisation of the realities of all social actors in schools.

THE CHILD’S VISION
For Vera, the key to understanding the situation is to tackle the problem from the point of view of children. After studying the life stories of student victims of forced displacement due to political violence, she discovered that the main expectations of pupils going to a new school is to be accepted and welcomed but, regrettably, they often do not have the support of the full educational community when going through the adaptation process.

Another aspect affecting social adaptation, and one that creates the sensation of rejection and lack of support, is the way in which classmates perceive the newcomer. While it is true that pupils studying alongside them might be in conditions of poverty, there are times when these feel that classmates suffering forced displacement might be dangerous. The former, nevertheless, receive manifestations of support and solidarity.

Something that must not be forgotten is that many children and families in these circumstances may be experiencing situations of emotional and economic stress, and this brings an additional complexity to the adaptation process.

Despite finding themselves many times in surroundings hardly favourable for establishing good interpersonal relations, some children suffering forced displacement begin to take on a protective role, not just in support of new children arriving
at the school themselves in displacement situations, but also with those who, for one or other reason, are not accepted either. “I studied the case of a child who met a classmate with growth difficulties (low height/age ratio) and took on the task
of protecting this pupil from the others,” Vera recalls.

HEALING WOUNDS
The study carried out by Professor Ángela Vera concludes
that there are several aspects that help in healing the wounds caused in children by forced displacement. In the first instance, there is the family, because these types of traumatic situations—which often include death, separation from the family, loss of personal possessions, and discrimination, among others—tend to lead to the strengthening of connections and the construction of a support network among loved ones.

On experiencing situations of difficulty, many children and youths suffering forced displacement acquire altruistic attitudes, seek social support within their families or new friendships, and participate in important processes for their communities, and this allows them to cure their emotional wounds, recuperate, and strengthen their personalities.

The new community to which families in forced displacement situations arrive has several fundamental roles to meet, not only as a space for acceptance but also in both affective relations and informative support, in other words offering tools that help the newcomers to adapt to a new lifestyle.
Finally, but no less important, is government

support in creating the feeling among victims that their rights have been recovered and redressed, involving them in different programs of help and encouragement aimed
at meeting their basic needs, providing attention for emergencies and financial stability, helping to heal wounds and not to expose the situation of so many children and families who have had to leave part of their lives behind and reconstruct a new story.

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Ángela Vera discovered that students in displacement situations are invisible because the families of the students do not want people to know about their situation, or because the actual education centres do not possess the tools to meet the needs of this group.

 
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