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Unesco: Teach Children How to Understand Migrants’ Lives, Before It’s Too Late


A Syrian refugee in Turkey, originally from a small town in Aleppo. A new generation of children living in countries that are receiving migrants needs to learn about those people and their worth, says a new report from Unesco, in order to counter misunderstandings. MUSE MOHAMMED/IOM

As outrage and horror build around stories of refugee children, some still in diapers, seized from their parents and suffering neglect and abuse along the United States border with Mexico, Unesco, the United Nations organization with education in its mandate, is looking ahead.

A new generation of children in countries receiving migrants needs to learn about the tragedy of displacement and the worth of refugees, Unesco says in a new report. Its underlying theme is that the new generation should grow up without the misunderstanding and hate spread by today’s anti-immigrant movements.

“Powerful, moving stories of migration and displacement occur around the world,” the report, titled “Migration, Displacement and Education: Building Bridges, Not Walls,” says in its call for action by teachers and schools.

“These stories of ambition, hope, fear, anticipation, ingenuity, fulfilment, sacrifice, courage, perseverance and distress remind us that migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family. Yet migration and displacement are also a source of divisions within and between States and societies.”

“In recent years, large movements of desperate people, including both migrants and refugees, have cast a shadow over the broader benefits of migration,” the survey, the first taken globally by the agency, added. How the newcomers are received also affects whether they will become radicalized or tempted by violence when rejected where they are resettled.

In the US Congress,  Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, warned President Trump that his actions, most recently his threat to order mass deportations of undocumented migrants in America, was striking fear in immigrant families across the country. Children of American citizens, she told reporters, were picking up the anxiety in their frightened migrant neighbors.

In a statement from her office on June 22, Pelosi urged religious leaders “to call upon the President to stop this brutal action which will tear families apart and inject terror into our communities.”

The migration crisis is an important moment for Audrey Azoulay of France, who became Unesco’s 10th director-general in November 2017. She brought to the job a career in cultural affairs and intercultural understanding, and her experience is being used in Unesco, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. As a former French minister of culture and communication, she had introduced multicultural programs for schoolchildren, and the new Unesco report reflects this interest.

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Born in Paris in 1972 to a Moroccan-Jewish family, Azoulay was educated at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in France and the University of Lancaster in Britain. Her father, André Azoulay, a banker and communications specialist who has been an adviser to Moroccan kings, is active in building Muslim-Jewish understanding in the Middle East; he supports a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israeli conflict.

Armin Rosen, a New York writer, described Azoulay as “the most powerful Jew in the Muslim world” in Tablet magazine in November 2018. Perhaps not surprising, Azoulay has critics on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide.

At Unesco, Audrey Azoulay has expanded research and educational programs about the Holocaust. She has also marked the International Day of Solidarity With the Palestinian People, commenting on their long struggle “for their inalienable rights as defined by the General Assembly, namely, the right to self-determination without external interference, the right to national independence and sovereignty, and the right to return to their homes and property, from which they have been displaced.”

While the 2019 Unesco report, the latest in the agency’s Global Education Monitoring series, includes displacement within a home country for variety of reasons — climate change threatening survival is one, urban-rural migration is another — much of the advice to educators applied to refugees and asylum-seekers crossing borders and cultures.

Audrey Azoulay, a former culture and communications minister in the French government from a Moroccan-Jewish family, has been director general of Unesco since 2017. ©UNESCO/Nora Houguenade

In most highly developed countries represented in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), at least one-fifth of 15-year-old students were immigrants or had immigrant backgrounds in 2015, according to the Unesco report. It also estimates that in 80 percent of secondary schools in high-income countries, at least five percent of students have immigrant backgrounds.

Teachers and school administrators everywhere are important to the task of reviewing and redesigning, where necessary, teaching materials for multicultural classes,  Azoulay of Unesco wrote in her introduction to the report on adjusting to migration.

“Well-trained teachers are vital for ensuring the inclusion of immigrant and refugee pupils, but they too need support in order to manage multilingual, multicultural classes, often including students with psychosocial needs,” she wrote. “A well-designed curriculum that promotes diversity, that provides critical skills and that challenges prejudices is also vital, and can have a positive ripple effect beyond the classroom walls. Sometimes textbooks include outdated depictions of migrations and undermine efforts towards inclusion. Many curricula are also not flexible enough to work around the lifestyles of those perpetually on the move.”

Nations and societies now faced with rising and sometimes-violent nativist movements can look to teachers and schools for correcting negative impressions of newcomers that could lead to security threats, Azoulay argued.

“The message of this Report is clear: Investing in the education of those on the move is the difference between laying a path to frustration and unrest, and laying a path to cohesion and peace,” she wrote.

Unesco’s message is not likely to reach many American communities. The Trump administration, in lock-step with Israel, pulled out of Unesco on Dec. 31, 2018, citing among other complaints, that its membership was too critical of the Israelis. Trump left the agency with about $600 million in United States debt, since Washington had stopped paying its dues in 2011, after Palestine was admitted to the organization as a member state.

This marked the second withdrawal of the US. The first was under President Ronald Reagan in 1984. That was reversed by President George W. Bush in 2003. Laura Bush was a strong advocate of returning to Unesco, as were numerous American academics, who welcomed the scientific and cultural exchanges the organization offered. Unesco’s program of designating World Heritage Sites has also been popular with many Americans.

In October 2003, Laura Bush took the extraordinary step of addressing a Unesco plenary conference in Paris to underline the resumed American commitment and stress the importance of the organization’s emphasis on education.

In her speech, she said: “We believe in working with the nations of the world to promote the values shared by people throughout the world. Working in communities to help friends and neighbors is part of the fabric of American society [and] the United States government will once again be a full, active and enthusiastic participant in Unesco’s important mission to promote peace and freedom.”

In 2019, that pledge seems long ago and far away.

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Unesco: Teach Children How to Understand Migrants’ Lives, Before It’s Too Late
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