University students and practitioners learn about helping refugee and migrant children
Last year, over 24,000 refugees and migrants passed through Serbia. Although they usually want to continue their journey, their stay in Serbia is becoming increasingly longer.
Serbia, Belgrade - In an art class, ten children are drawing colourful pictures. The prevailing colour in all the drawings is blue – the colour of the sea that they crossed running from wars, poverty, and uncertainty. The students in this class are refugee and migrant children.
These children and their parents are among the 1 million people who went on an arduous journey hoping to reach Western Europe in the last five years in search of a more secure future. Last year, over 24,000 refugees and migrants passed through Serbia. Although they usually want to continue their journey, their stay in Serbia is becoming increasingly longer.
Many girls and boys travel alone. And many have experienced great traumas on their journeys, and they need help. Professionals from the social protection system, as well as those working in asylum and reception centres throughout Serbia, work with them daily. Working with children affected by migration requires additional knowledge and understanding of the difficulties and specific challenges and risks to their safety and health that occur in the context of migration. This kind of knowledge is something that is not part of the current university curricula in Serbia.
To change this, UNICEF, in cooperation with the University of Belgrade and with the support of the Government of the United States of America, developed and piloted the Protection of Children Affected by Migration course in 2020. With the support of the European Union Health Programme, the work on the development of the course was finalized and accredited. From this year, students at the Faculty of Political Sciences can enrol in the course.
The curriculum is based on UNICEF’s many years of global experience in working with professionals involved in social and health care sectors, as well as in education and migration management.
It was created through a consultation process with professionals involved in the response to the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis. In cooperation with the Faculty of Political Sciences, the course was designed to encourage the participation of both students and professionals – those who are already working with refugee and migrant children and those who are yet to do so.
One of the professionals taking this course is Stefani Nedovic, a social pedagogue, working at the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration of the Republic of Serbia. She had been working in the Asylum Centre in Krnjaca, in Belgrade, for more than a year before starting the course.
“I want to attend this course because I work professionally with migrant and refugee children and I feel that I need to expand my knowledge in order to have a better and more thorough approach when working with children,” said Stefani when she started the course. “I want to become better, to improve my skills for identifying children's problems and to learn how to identify children at risk, how to approach them and provide support.”
Unlike Stefani, Katarina Jerotic, a social work and social policy student at the Faculty of Political Sciences, did not know much about refugee and migrant children when she enrolled. What prompted her to take the course was meeting refugee and migrant children from the Krnjaca Asylum Center. During her first year of university, as part of an internship, she took the children to the Belgrade Zoo.
“I realized just how little I knew about their needs and ways to help them,” Katarina recalled. “That’s why I applied for this course.”
Apart from wanting to learn about the protection of refugee and migrant children and their families, Stefani and Katarina had another shared motive to enrol in the course. They both looked forward to the participation of both students and professionals in the classes.
“I’m interested in the experiences of practitioners, all the knowledge they’ve gained in the field. This experience is invaluable, and we can learn from them as much as from teachers and books. I think I can elaborate many of my ideas with them,” says Katarina.
Stefani believes that studying with students can open new perspectives. “Working with university students brings a new perspective. We can hear views from someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to meet migrant children. Students often ask a question from a different perspective, from an angle we wouldn’t think of because we’re on the inside, we know how the process works, and then we can see a new quality from that angle.”
Once they completed the course, which was held online because of COVID-19 measures, the curiosity Stefani and Katarina felt when they enrolled was replaced by confidence in their knowledge and skills needed to work with refugee and migrant children.
“Classes were often based on examples from practice and events that happened,” explains Stefani, who works at the Asylum Centre in Krnjaca. “I find it particularly important that we learned how to approach a child, how to talk to a child, how to involve a child in making decisions that concern him or her.”
Apart from learning about international standards and criteria, Stefani finds it useful that she learnt about the importance of child participation. “We all know what we need to do, but in those moments, the child is often excluded. But now [we know we have] to ask what the child wants. How to ask that, how to respond and how to make decisions and whether this is the best for the child.”
Katarina Jerotic recalls the lecture on gender-based violence given by guest speakers from UNICEF.
“In one class, we had a guest speaker from UNICEF, when we discussed examples of gender-based violence. There was a picture of a group of children, and the question was – what is wrong with this picture. It turns out that this can be a problem and that violence can go unnoticed in a group of people.” explains Katarina.
“We saw a couple of films dealing with gender-based violence among boys and how, despite our best intentions, we can ignore a significant aspect of their problem if we are not familiar with their culture and if we don’t have information about what children might have experienced,”.
Stefani and Katarina, and all the other students of the course, have learned something which is key when working in the field – how to help those most vulnerable.
“The most vulnerable are unaccompanied children, especially girls travelling alone, and children separated from their families along the way. This course taught us how to approach those children, primarily how to provide basic first aid, to see if they are fine, if they are healthy, if they can talk, to introduce ourselves. In such cases, the most important thing for us is to have an interpreter who will talk to them in their mother tongue”, explains Stefani.
Learning about the importance of the culture of migrants and refugees for their experience was important for Katarina. “We've seen a few cases when something that is misunderstood due to cultural differences can result in a life-threatening scenario and a failure to give medical care they need. Cultural mediators must explain that even if something is not acceptable or popular in their community or culture, it may still be beneficial to them."
All students at the Faculty of Political Sciences, as well as professionals working on protection of refugee and migrant children can enrol in the Protection of Children Affected by Migration course, which is being implemented by UNICEF with the European Union Health Programme support and co-funding and in cooperation with the Faculty of Political Sciences.