Croatian teacher unlocks the potential in her refugee pupils

While her school in Karlovac is closed due to Covid-19, a determined teacher keeps the doors of learning open by going online.

Croatian specialist teacher Matea Hotujac Dreven believes passionately that when it comes to education, no child should be left behind. In normal times, she helps both disabled and refugee children – with different problems but the same risk of struggling with lessons– to keep up in the classroom. The Covid-19 crisis may have closed her school but she remains committed to giving every child a chance.

“I see the hidden potential in my pupils,” she says. “And I feel like the keeper of the keys, looking for the keyhole that will unlock them.”

Matea, 39, works as a hearing, speech and language therapist at Braća Seljan Elementary School in the central Croatian city of Karlovac. Six refugees from Syria are among 300 pupils attending the school, for children aged seven to 15.

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Matea’s pupils reveal their potential through drawings of their dream professions. Muhammed, 15, sees himself in future as a policeman. Duha, studying in the fifth grade, wants to be a doctor.

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Locals call the school “the old lady” as the yellow building, in Austro-Hungarian style, dates back to 1893. It is named after two 19th century Croatian explorers, who travelled to Africa and South America and one of whom made the journey from St. Petersburg to Paris on foot.

If you are happy, you will learn; if you are burdened by expectations, you will be frustrated. Play is the key, not fear of making mistakes.

“In our school, we try to do new things in the tradition of these old explorers,” say Matea. The Covid-19 crisis has forced her to be resourceful and innovative, finding smart solutions to make sure her already vulnerable pupils do not lose out further during the lockdown.

Matea, who is half Slovenian on her mother’s side, holds masters degrees in Slovenian and Macedonian, and rehabilitation and phonetics. She is also a licensed play therapist. For 15 years, she has used her skills and special methods to support variously disadvantaged children, including kids from national minorities.

“I came from a family of doctors but I was good at languages,” says Matea. “So a career combining languages and therapy was right for me.”

She was inspired by her own elementary school teacher in Zagreb, Marija Duduković, who helped five children with particular needs in a bigger class of 35, so that nobody felt odd or left out.

These days, Matea is working with a 14-year-old Croatian boy with special needs called Gabrijel, and separately with six healthy Syrian children. Gabrijel has home schooling. The Syrian children follow the normal curriculum with their classmates but have extra Croatian language lessons with Matea after school.

The Syrian children come from two different families who were resettled in Croatia from Turkey. Two are girls and four are boys, and they range in age from nine to 15.

Matea teaches all ages together but this is not a problem, as she will pick a common topic – say, trains – and pitch it to each child individually, depending on their level of maturity.

Local children with physical or mental disabilities differ from healthy refugee children, who may have missed school for long periods and are held back by lack of language. But what all children have in common is that they play, which is why play therapy works for all.

“Saja is a fighter,” says Matea. “She was traumatised; her experience as a refugee definitely left its mark. “But Saja works hard to understand where she is now”.

Matea uses the SGAV method developed in the 1950s by Croatian linguist and academic Petar Guberina and his French associate Paul Rivenc. Role play encourages children who for whatever reason have speech problems to speak.

“We dramatise real life situations and don’t worry too much about grammar,” says Matea. “If you are happy, you will learn; if you are burdened by expectations, you will be frustrated. Play is the key, not fear of making mistakes. Play is a safe bubble in which we are all equal.”

Under Matea’s wing, the Syrian children have made good progress. They may have missed out on schooling in Turkey but in Karlovac they are catching up.

“We can already see tangible results from Matea’s dedicated efforts to integrate these children in school and life,” says headmistress Jasmina Budinski. “We couldn’t have found a better person to work with children for whom Croatia has become a second homeland.”

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The youngest in Matea’s class is a girl called Saja, aged nine. “Saja is a fighter,” says Matea. “She was traumatised; her experience as a refugee definitely left its mark.

“But Saja works hard to understand where she is now. She knows nothing comes on a plate, and makes immense efforts with her homework. She was clinging to her older sister but now she is more independent. When she grows up, she wants to be a teacher.”

The oldest in the class is Saja’s brother Muhammed, 15. He was a turbulent teen until Matea allowed him one thing that distinguished him from the younger children – the right to pray on his own during break.       “After that, he became very helpful. Now he is my right hand man, and like an older brother to the others,” says Matea.

“I like the way the school and teacher treat us,” says Muhammed. “I have learned a lot, and even wish I could have more homework.”

Mahmoud, 12, is from the other Syrian family. “He likes a challenge,” says Matea, “not to be passive but active. In his eyes, I see tremendous potential but also sadness because up to now he has not been able to show what he can do. His ambition is to be a policeman.”

The children have painted themselves in the professions they dream of pursuing. They are keen to succeed but the coronavirus pandemic and its associated restrictions have put a brake on normal life.

Not to be defeated, Matea arranged for the two Syrian families to get computers at home. They didn’t have them before and the Croatian boy Gabrijel, perhaps used to self-isolation because of his disability, gave one of his computers to his Syrian friends to help them in lockdown.

Matea has created a website called “My Croatian” and every day her pupils get new language exercises they can do online. Using Google Translate to give instructions in Arabic, she has also come up with adapted materials in other subjects from the curriculum, and put them out on a special school website called “We learn together”.

“It is important there are no gaps in their knowledge,” says Matea. For as a teacher, she knows very well that the education her pupils get today will affect the life opportunities they have tomorrow.