I Was a Child of this World but Never in It
Peace from the Lens of a War Child
A Personal Appeal
by Dzenana Kurtovic Ceman
For the past few days, I have come across articles on how to address conflict in the
classroom from people who have never experienced war. I have noticed intelligent people, people I hold in high regard racing to write about conflict. Individuals looking at conflict through lenses of everyone but a traumatized war child. That’s privilege. Individuals writing about conflict without mentioning who is the victim and who is doing the victimizing leaving it to the audience to negotiate a meaning instead of constructing one. Your opinion on conflict may be distorted if you have distanced yourself from the suffering of a war child.
I was worried that there will be a day where I would have to write about this. I ask of you to stop treating the word “peace” like it’s a frisbee. You can have peace but not have freedom of expression. That’s not peace. You can have peace that simultaneously harms identity. Before you dive into the discourse on peace, social media misinformation, post-truth era and importance of offering multiple perspectives, here is something you should know.
Of all the horrific news coming out of Gaza, a particular image evoked a deeply painful part of my past. For the first time I felt like one of those rotating ballerina jewelry music boxes that never played its beautiful melody. And by the time I wished to play the melody of my childhood, the childhood was over. Gone. My childhood was disrupted by war. It is like the heaviness of this world had been pulling on me for decades now. It was an image of a fragile twelve-year-old girl underneath the rubble in Gaza that evoked something in me. Her frail body lay dead and helpless.
“She reached the abyss” I thought to myself, thinking of the young Palestinian girl. Then I remembered, a ten-year old child alone in an elevator descending into an abyss. She screams, she shrieks, bangs on the doors to be freed, but no one hears her. No one comes for help and no one ever will. And the worst part is, her ten-year old mind knows that no one ever will. That was me in 1992. And this particular photo of this sweet Palestinian girl resuscitated the darkest memories of my childhood.
The images of children in Palestine evoke the fear that I don’t remember having since Sarajevo and the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It is that fear where you don’t know whether you are going to see your mom again once she leaves the house to fetch some food. You tug on to your mother’s legs until she cannot physically leave the house. Because you’d rather be hungry than be an orphan. Those are the options you get as a child of war. But majority of the time you do not have an option because of the constant shelling and destruction.
Always being overly aware that this, this may be the last time. There is the fear of not seeing your friends again because there may not be a next time. To this day, I make sure that I never leave a day on a “bad vibe” with my family members. I have to hug and kiss them goodnight. I can never allow my family members to be upset with me. To this day, I am scared of the authority and anytime I see a police officer or a man in a uniform it reminds me of the first time I saw tank rolling in my direction. Finally, as a child, there is that false and naïve hope that someone will intervene and validate my experience, my suffering. By not acknowledging who the victim is, an educator adds to identity harm.
It was on April 21, 1992 when I parted from my father and left Bosnia together with my mom and my younger sister. My father was a doctor and had to stay in Bosnia. At that time, I didn’t know it was going to be forever leaving my childhood home. My mom made it look like one of those scenes from Life is Beautiful, as if this was an expedition or a week-long camping trip. I remember waiting with my mother by the phone for countless hours for my father to call. I remember being so sad and disappointed when the phone didn’t ring. Eventually, I did learn that my father was wounded by a Serbian sniper.
Little did I know that my years as a refugee in Germany would present other struggles. Struggles of living in a single-parent household, struggles of assimilation and inner turmoil. Not to mention I was surrounded by educators who were devoid of culturally responsive teaching. But I’ll save that for another time.
I was a child of this world but never in it. And today, so many children are alive but not living. Teach their stories. Amplify their voices.
Does your school teach about Bosnia? Do you even know about Bosnia and Herzegovina?
On April 22, 1994, I saw my father again. Even decades later, I remember that skeleton-looking figure that rang our bell at the refugee housing in Germany. This image is engraved in my memory. It was and is the happiest day of my life. And I was the lucky one. There are no shortages of Bosnian childhood horror stories to tell.
For us in Bosnia it took almost FOUR years for the world to intervene and by that time, it wasn’t an intervention. Genocide occurred. The world stood there and watched. At 1601 dead children later, the siege of Sarajevo ended. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an estimated 100,000 people died in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
And here comes the painful part – you may be living in Europe and your academic institution has never mentioned or taught anything about Bosnia. For the past two decades I have been teaching literature and my whole career I have dedicated to giving voices to those who don’t have one. Sometimes, I think, subconsciously, one of the reasons I became a teacher is the ability to be a child again playing the melody of childhood that I never got a chance to play myself.
There are so many layers to my experience as a child of war and this is just a glimpse of it. It’s late to save all our children. It’s been late for years. For decades and centuries. It is imperative to look at Palestine and turmoil around the world through lens of a war child.
Now let me ask you this question…
Is anyone in your school teaching a Palestinian author? If not, what is preventing you from doing so?
As educators, I ask of you to amplify the stories of Palestinian children and all our children suffering around the world. Today, as you read this article you have given me a platform to remind you of Bosnia and Herzegovina and it means a lot to me. For melody of every child breathes life in us and is to be cherished. And there is no future without that sweet melody. And sadly, so many years after Bosnia, I find myself again yearning for an orchestra of sensible adults who are entertained by that childhood melody and that melody alone.
Dzenana Kurtovic Ceman is a Bosnian-American educator. She has spent over two decades teaching literature in New York City, Brussels and is currently residing in Vienna, Austria.
I read your TIE Online article, “How Might International Schools Position Themselves in Times of Armed Conflict?”. You’re right; it’s not a simple stance and the reality is all-encompassing. The violence we read about, hear about or experience is unavoidable. Many of our students and colleagues bear this weight as they enter our school doors.
Before I respond, I would like to name my own positionality and the lenses that I am writing from. I’m a Queer, non-binary, half white half Latinx American. I also have a multicultural family – my partner is Kuwaiti American, and his American side of the family is Jewish. I acknowledge that many of my intersectional identities inform my experiences within the international school community.
For those of us who have the privilege to live away from the shadow of terrible human suffering that we see in the world, what position should we take when it comes to armed conflicts?
This is not a simple question, and one that many would probably rather avoid altogether, but we cannot because the reality that is around us engulfs the minds and experiences of our communities and students, either directly or vicariously through social media.
Avoiding international crises and global disasters is indeed a privilege. Turning off the news or avoiding social media is not something everyone can do, especially for those who have families being directly affected by these crises. Therefore, It’s impossible to leave our whole selves at the front doors of our schools. Global events will inevitably affect us through family, friends, our colleagues, or our students.
International Schools, in general, are beholden by a set of values around peaceful cooperation, critical thinking and social custodianship. In times of armed conflict, these four core principles might help you navigate your way:
- An international school is a place of learning and not a political organisation or national government – while all those working in international schools should deplore all forms of conflict, especially those that contravene international law, the purpose of an international school is not to publicly condemn nation states or governments, individuals or groups, nor is it to encourage our students to take sides, it is always to stand on the side of peace. While individuals might have their own positions, the school represents several nationalities and does not pick and choose a position that the whole organization is expected to stand by.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote: “All education is political; teaching is never a neutral act” (1971). In 1984, bell hooks asserted a similar sentiment in her transformative book Teaching To Transgress where she argues that no education is politically neutral because teaching “is a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement that makes education the practice of freedom” (hooks,1984).
International schools, by nature, are inherently political spaces, and we need to reckon with that fact as educators. The reasoning is clear:
- Schools are only accessible to the extremely wealthy and privileged
- Curriculum centers Western lenses, experiences, and ideologies
- Leadership is predominantly cis, white, male, and heterosexual
- English is normally the primary language of instruction
- Teaching staff from the “inner circle” Western countries like the US, UK, Canada, etc. are privileged over teachers from the Global South.
How are schools not political spaces? How can we achieve justice and liberation for everyone within our community if we don’t acknowledge the positionality of our schools? If we ignore the political nature of our schools, then we’re upholding the status quo.
Also, the word conflict can be misleading. A conflict can be defined as a struggle, clash, or disagreement between two forces. What if power is asymmetrical? What if one side has disproportionate military technology and global influence? This is a power over dynamic, which is built upon force, domination, and control. This dynamic characterizes sustained, systemic violence, not a conflict. When we engage in discussion and critique institutional powers and systemic discrimination, we can take action to help those who are affected now and take steps to prevent violence in the future.
Also, by your logic, we should condemn all forms of conflict…but how can we condemn a conflict without naming what’s happening right in front of us? While I don’t think that schools need to necessarily take a political stance, our collective silence around how violence is disproportionately affecting members of our community is action.
- In times of extreme emotional turmoil, such as that which armed conflict creates, as educators we must not forget the vital importance of remaining focussed on being critical thinkers, not swayed by any form of propaganda and not assuming, most especially in the middle of such conflict, that information is unbiased or depoliticised, complete or not charged with complex details of context. Therefore, encouraging listening, learning, reflection, questioning and suspending judgement should be centred.
I agree – we need to remain critical thinkers, especially in times of global catastrophe. Propaganda exists everywhere we turn, so we must teach our students to be vigilant in identifying and understanding how propaganda can inform our actions and beliefs. One purpose behind propaganda is to silence the voices of others; to shape a single story narrative designed to uphold a certain set of beliefs and values that, if challenged, are met with hostility. Information is never unbiased or depoliticized, because information is used to privilege certain narratives over others. We also need to remember to listen to the stories of people affected by these global catastrophes, especially the stories of our most marginalized community members. In my experience as an educator, many of these stories are intentionally omitted in the name of a false sense neutrality.
- Students, parents and staff may be traumatised by events and schools will clearly therefore do what they can to be supportive, allowing members of the community who are affected to feel safe and using pastoral and human resources teams to give care and moral support to the community.
The unfolding of world events can traumatize many in our community in a multitude of ways. Schools need to provide adequate support for these individuals, and also seek to invest in external support. Our pastoral team may not be equipped or comfortable to support families through global traumatic events. Do our pastoral teams have adequate trauma response training? Are they Queer and gender affirming? Do we hire people of color with lived experiences that can relate to our students? Also, there should be multiple pathways of healing, and having that responsibility fall on the few counselors we have at our schools would be unfair and harmful. Trauma and violence goes far beyond moral support and care. Organizations like The International Institution of Restorative Practices is a starting point to ensure that our schools have the tools needed to address harm. We also need to critique our hiring practices. Do our pastoral and human resources team reflect the identities of the global majority?
In order to begin healing, we must be able to name harm as well as develop systems to support our diverse student and faculty body. There can be no healing without acknowledgment of reality.
- Armed conflict leads to several forms of real but also symbolic violence and we must be attentive to the dangers of overgeneralisation, prejudice, stereotyping and in-grouping or out-grouping that occur. Staff should be attentive to this and ensure that no one in their school community is ostracised because of the country they come from, their religion, culture or political orientation.
No single person should be conflated with the politics or government of their nationality. Stereotyping and prejudice cause harm to everyone in our community. As schools, we also need to be realistic; politics and government will be conflated with the identities of our students and teachers. We need to ensure that safeguards are in place to address when they happen. Failure to address the violence, especially with our most vulnerable community members, contributes to ongoing violence.
The bottom line is that international schools, and perhaps all schools for that matter, should never allow the armed conflict of the outside world to enter the classroom.
The same unfortunately can’t be said for many people in the world. I think about schools in the US that constantly worry about gun violence. I think about how the war in Ukraine interrupted the school for so many people. I think about the violence in Sudan and how that’s affected our students. There are too many instances of armed conflicts forcing their ways into classrooms.
Silence and moving forward with the status quo is a missed opportunity. It’s false and irresponsible to assume that our school spaces are bubbles, somehow immune and sheltered from what’s happening in the “outside world”. When, in fact, what’s going on outside of our walls has very real consequences in our community. I believe that we can be on the path of healing and liberation through ongoing dialogue and meaningful action. Let’s reflect on the wisdom of civil rights advocate and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw; “When there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem. When you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it.”
I think the four principles you proposed are helpful. I would like to add some ideas to them:
Four principles, therefore, in these terrible and difficult times:
- Stand on the side of peace and openly denounce violence
- Think independently and critically, and name bias
- Demonstrate love and care to everyone within our community
Name and address prejudice
The DEIJ agenda in schools and school districts is being led by many courageous, committed and skilled people, the vast majority of whom can draw on real life experiences of dealing with the effects of personal and systemic prejudice and/or discrimination. Too often these people are isolated, insufficiently supported and recognised. They deserve better and their work will become more deeply impactful if they have the active support of their Heads of School/school leaders, especially those of us like me, white, male, cisgender, wealthy and possessing many other aspects of identity that afford me great privilege. In order to provide active support school leaders must model the learning journey that we expect our stakeholders to undergo; deeply interrogating and understanding their own identity, the identity of others; the opportunities and the struggles that aspects of identity can result in and our own privilege and internal biases. They also need to be active allies, if not advocates rather than the passive stance that I see so often. I have walked this journey with our talented and courageous Director of DEIJ. Most of the time I stand behind her, sometimes I stand beside her and occasionally I stand in front of her to help lead this work.
Tariro Chinondo (2007-)
When day came we went to school.
Beginning to develop our knowledge.
But between class was when we started to realize,
We were divided.
With your fingers in our braids, you ask,
“Is your hair fake? And how do you wash it?”
At the end of the day, we learned to embrace discomfort.
We graduated primary and with that, the queries faded;
Nevertheless, the silence did not always bring peace.
Never spotting a teacher who looked like us,
Never learning about our motherland.
But when we did, all was associated with slavery.
The ignorance of our comrades began to show,
And our education further ignited it.
Approaching the end of our school years,
We formed clubs.
We examined and carried forth plans,
But our advancements were ineffective.
Now here we stand pleading to you all,
And yet you still ask if we are comfortable.
It will take long until we are comfortable.
Bio: Tariro Chinondo is a member of the Black Student Union and a DEIJ-CEESA student representative at the Vienna International School. She is a student advocate on matters of inclusion and justice. This poem reflects experiences that Black students face within the international school ecosystem.