People across Britain have been deeply disturbed by the recent events not only in Paris, but in Beirut, Iraq and Egypt, to name but a tragic few. In our community in a castle in a little coastal corner of South Wales, these emotions have been keenly felt. UWC Atlantic College is made up of 350 students from 90 countries, with students from the UK studying alongside others from around the world, including conflict areas such as Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Ukraine and Armenia. Though they didn’t occur on UK soil, these atrocities do not feel far from our door.
Moments like this make us even steelier in our determination that what we’re doing here, and at the other 14 United World Colleges across the world (we are the founding college of the international UWC Movement), is the right thing. We believe international education - bringing together young people from totally diverse areas of the world with different beliefs, attitudes, experiences - can be a long term solution to some of the problems the world faces.
In his speech to convince the Commons of air strikes in Syria, David Cameron talked of ISIL/Daesh’s plot 'to kill us and to radicalise our children right now'. Indeed, two young men- Reeyad Khan and Nasser Muthana - fled from Cardiff to the Middle East to fight their cause.
Our classrooms are just 30 miles from their home, where our students hold workshops and debates on these terrorist organisations along with many other aspects of the international crises we face around the world today.
At a recent student-organised Refugee Week conference, students explored everything from ‘The real situation in Syria’ to ‘Why some Europeans want refugees to go home’, creating platforms where students from the UK can talk through the real life issues with peers from those conflict regions. In the UK we often forget that a safe open platform to voice personal opinions and hear the opposing views of others, is an all too rare a thing in many countries. Young people need to be able to express their views safely, knowing that if that view is not shared it will be respected and listened too. At our College, Palestinians share dorm rooms with Israelis, Jews work on projects with Muslims. If only all students, like these young men from Riverside in Cardiff, could access this outlet. Would their choices be different?
It’s equally important to discover and share the culture and beauty that exists in regions like the Middle East and recognise the similarities that unite us all. If that sounds idealistic, here is the reality. Each week, our co-curricular students dedicate their time to work with refugees in Cardiff, teaching English and helping the transition to life in the UK. It’s very likely this isn’t the case at the majority of comprehensive schools or sixth-forms, nor is motivated by a need for a ‘good deed’ for a UCAS application.
Like many aspects of an international education, this is students from the UK and the wider world, getting to know people from conflict areas - humanising stories they’d only otherwise see through the prism of the media.
This leads to one of the interesting conversations to immerge during the students’ Refugee Week. Having spent a week discussing the current situation in Syria, the rise of ISIL/ Daesh, the European migrant crisis and the history of the Middle East, the conversation turned to the displays of solidarity that appeared on social media following the abhorrent attacks in Paris. Like many around the globe, many of the students had changed their profile pictures to display the French flag, but that raised a question – how many of us had thought to do the same following the equally traumatic terrorist attacks in Lebanon, Tunisia, Nigeria, or Mali?
These conversations continued in college halls and on Facebook walls with our students raising the question with friends back in their home countries who hadn’t considered shows of solidarity with other less newsworthy nations.
Regardless of an individual student’s background, be it poverty or privilege, these shared experiences often have a monumental effect on young people. The stories of others become personal, as does the mission to use their education to work towards a more peaceful world in their adult lives.
It is the reason why this Monday, a group of UWC Atlantic College students took centre stage at an event at the House of Lords to share these stories, asking the audience to recognise how an internationally minded approach to education can provide young people, tomorrow’s leaders, with the tools and understanding to be a force for positive change.
In the very week the UK decides whether to drop bombs on Syria, two of our Syrian students shared the stories of their personal journeys to the UK, and the fear they feel for their friends and families at home. They are joined by two best friends, a Jew and a Muslim born worlds and religions apart, who have started their own world-wide movement, Paint the World, to share positivity and compassion to those in need.
Students need to understand the real lives of refugees, and the conflicts they flee. Equally, sometimes we adults need to stand back and listen to these young people. The approaches we take to their education today will dictate the decisions they make for us in the years to come.
I appreciate that as an international college, we are in a relatively unique position. We have 350 international students living and working together on one campus. Few schools are as socially, economically and religiously diverse as ours. But, I believe it is still possible for other schools to replicate and adapt the opportunities we strive to provide. Here, our students volunteer with STAR, a national charity of 13,000 students welcoming refugees to the UK. As a national organisation made up of over 30 groups at universities across the UK, it provides students with an opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of those who seek the safety we take for granted.
Working with the charity provides young people with chance to volunteer with local refugee projects, campaign to improve the lives of refugees, help to educate others about refugees and asylum, and fundraise to welcome refugees to the UK. Ultimately, this is your students’ chance to make a difference to someone’s life, and almost assuredly their own.
In truth, our young people aren’t students forever, they are future politicians, teachers, economists, many of whom go back to their home countries to put what they’ve learned at our college into practice. As the atrocities continue around us, we’re ever more convinced that our approach gives a glimmer of hope for a more united future.
John Walmsley, Principal