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In Norwich, a refugee teacher helps forcibly displaced children to belong


In Norwich, a refugee teacher helps forcibly displaced children to belong

A primary school in Norfolk works hard to welcome refugee children.
11 October 2023
Two women are stood up and a man and a boy sat down in a school library.

Teachers Jake, seated, and Saeedeh, far right, with Jeannette from Anglia Ruskin University and Denys, a new pupil at the school who arrived after fleeing Ukraine.

NORWICH, ENGLAND — Saeedeh struggled to find a job after arriving in the UK to seek asylum with her two sons. Back home in Iran, she had been a teacher for 28 years, eventually becoming head of a primary school. Yet that experience and her qualifications were not recognised in the British education system and curriculum, so she struggled to find a way back into teaching in the UK. Then she found Avenue Junior School in Norwich, one of over 400 Schools of Sanctuary across the UK.   

Inclusion Coordinator and teacher, Jake, is also a co-founder of A Day of Welcome with Jeannette, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at the nearby Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, which is held each June ahead of Refugee Week with events for teachers, schools, parents, and children. Jake says the Norfolk-wide event aims, “to show our colours as a community, to say we are welcoming, and we value the different aspects of diversity that members bring with them.”

A woman and a man both stand in a classroom looking at the camera.

Saeedeh was struggling to find employment in the UK despite her long history of teaching in Iran. After initially volunteering at the school, she has gone on to have many roles and to assist with 'A Day of Welcome'. Saeedeh uses her own experience of displacement,  to help and support refugee pupils.

Saeedeh has had many roles in the school, originally beginning her work after Jake and Jeannette put out a call to a local charity looking for experts, people with lived experience of displacement, to work with them and help them shape their project. She volunteered at Avenue Junior before gaining the UK qualifications that have allowed her to become a classroom assistant, and she has joined the advisory board for A Day of Welcome, which is entirely made up of people who have been forcibly displaced. “They are an essential part of the project, and they are helping us to shape it as we move forward,” Jeannette says.

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In the classroom, Saeedeh is able to use her experience as a teacher and a refugee to help forcibly displaced children to adjust to life in Britain, to learn English and to get the most out of their school life. 

Denys, from Kyiv in Ukraine, missed out on months of education after being forced to flee at the start of the full-scale invasion of his country, but the 11-year-old lights up when Saeedeh’s name is mentioned. His English is improving as is his confidence, he is doing well and making friends. “I like everything about this school, I am in such a good mood when I come to this school” he says.

Avenue Junior’s commitment to creating a welcoming environment is evident from the moment pupils reach the school gates: there are bright paintings celebrating diversity around the playground and an area set aside as a forest school, where children can explore and connect with nature, even in the city. In the forest school, Denys collects and learns about insects, practises making campfires, and spends time together with other pupils with an experience of being forced to flee, and those of different age groups.

As a classroom assistant and refugee, Saaedeh is instrumental in bringing the welcoming promise of Schools of Sanctuary to fruition, but all the teachers at Avenue Junior—as well as pupils and parents—have important roles to play. Refugee children have often suffered trauma in their escape from violence and require more time and greater sensitivity, as well as support in overcoming language barriers and in adapting to cultural changes at school and in their new lives. A supportive school staff and community makes the transition smoother for children such as Denys.

With the war in Ukraine, the crisis in Afghanistan, and multiple emergencies around the world, the number of forcibly displaced children has grown, so before refugee pupils join the school, their classmates are taught about what it means to be forced from your home, and learn a few words in the language of the newcomers to make them feel more welcome. When he first arrived, Denys could not speak English, so Saeedeh communicated with body language and kindness, but gradually his language skills are improving, she says. “He can communicate with the other children, and little by little he can understand more,” Saeedeh says, adding that the other children’s patience has been invaluable.

With the challenges of displacement, being uprooted, and leaving behind everything that is familiar, Avenue Junior has become a true sanctuary for Denys, who looks forward to school every day. Much of that happiness is down to Saeedeh and the support she gives him. “When I don’t know something, she is always there to help me,” he says.