Teaching refugees with Tora Alexandersen

I studied for an MA in photography with Tora 3 years ago at London College of Fashion. Since then, we both took a different turn in our lives and started teaching. We stayed in contact via social media and she told me about her experiences with teaching refugees. I was immediately taken aback by the emotional stories she recalled. It was so reconfirming to know someone who, caught in the middle of this unfair political turmoil, proves to have enough guts to make it up against the injustice and lack of support society has brought towards people from war zones and decide to become the change we all want to see in the world.  

With the level of forced displacements reaching historic level- schools all over the world have welcomed refugee children. Us, teachers, are facing a new kind of challenge with them. For students with a refugee background academic success is often connected with an engaging school community. Students’ traumatic experiences have a direct result on learning and their behaviour in the classroom.

The refugees experiences before they migrated are often filled with more difficulties and misfortunes than other immigrants and second language learners. These misfortunes often include having to leave school or not being able to attend school at all because of displacement or political instability. Many have experience some sort of trauma in the form of losing a loved one, torture, lack of food. These experiences can lead to added difficulties having to wait for their asylum claim to be processed and learning the language. Most of my students have grown up without conventional schooling or had their schooling interrupted by their displacement. Their hardships do not end when they flee their countries- they continue with a new obstacle: having to learn the language of their country of asylum.


I started teaching refugees back in 2015 at the height of the refugee «crisis», and within two months I was asked to be in charge of a new class of unaccompanied minors (children under the age of 18 traveling without a grown up). Within a week of starting the class, we went from 5 to 10 students and before the summer holidays there were about 18 students in my class. Safe to say, I knew nothing about refugees and how to deal with the trauma many of them suffer from, but what I did was working hard on building a good and positive relation to each one of them, showing them that I am there for them.

In my first year of teaching I only had boys in my class and they all lived in a refugee centre for unaccompanied minors. They came from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Having to common language meant we had to communicate in Norwegian and luckily young minds learn fast.


All I know about teaching and refugees I have learned on the go and through reading research on the topic of teaching refugees. I have met many difficulties along the way.
When dealing with this group of students you never know what you are going to get. If they are having a bad day it will have an impact on the rest of the class and what we are able to learn that day. I have many sad stories, but I also have more successful stories.

It is easier to remember the hard and difficult episodes. I have had students fight over a chair- and I do not mean arguing- I mean actually fighting. One student took stranglehold on another student simply for him sitting in a chair that the other student felt was in his possession. I am just so glad I had the other students help me separate them, I do not know what would have happened if I did not. Discrepancies they had with each other at «home» – the refugee camp would often be brought with them to school.

There are three more episodes where memories are still vivid. One such episode was at the beginning of the school year. In the classroom I though it would be a good idea to write the class rules in their languages and the students eagerly took to the task of discussing and translating the rules we had agreed on in advance. After some time, two of the students start disagreeing on how to write some of the rules and start a hefty discussion on hit- the situation becomes a bit heated, but nothing happens. When we finish for the day and the students leave school I stay behind in the classroom to clean up. I hear a lot of noise coming from outside and one student comes in telling me the two students that disagreed earlier are having a fight now. I quickly run outside to see what is happening and see the two boys throwing fist at each other. Then one of them picks up a rather large stone and aims to throw it at the other student and somehow I end up in the firing rage of this stone. I cannot recall how I got the student to drop the stone, but he manges to throw a fist full of gravel at the other student. The other student is more or less dragged home by the other boys. And I am left with one boy boiling over with anger and emotions. I finally get the boy to crack and he starts crying and tells me the reason he is so angry and upset is because he got news about one of his uncles being beheaded by Taliban. I can remember sitting there with this boy crying his eyes out in worry over his family home in Afghanistan and not being able to do anything about their situation. I think I never ended up reporting this to the school management. I sent a message to the staff at the reception centre and went on with my day.

Several months later I get in a new situation with the same boy. We were out skiing and sledging, having a good time. The school has payed for the food we were putting on the bonfire, but this boy is sitting there eating of all the buns we were to have our sausages and fishcakes in, I ask him to stop and his reaction is to call me “cheap” and “greedy”. We start more or less arguing and I tell him that it is non mandatory to be at school or take part in school activities. The situation ends with him threatening to beat me with a wood log if I do not shut up. I reported this situation to the school management and the reception centre and I got some kind of apology from the boy- but that apology was mostly worded by my direct supervisor.


One of the saddest things to happen while I have been teaching refugees is when the police came a night in November 2016 and collected 4 boys from the refugee camp, detained them and transported them out of the country. If they only knew the fright and terror that brought to the group of young boys left behind in fear of being the next one being put on a flight to Kabul. That night but so many things upside down, we could not have regular schooling for days after. And later several boys have fled the country in fear of being picked up and transported out of the country by the police. Another of my previous students was stopped by the police as he was trying to flee Norway. It seems it has become as hard to leave the country as it is to get in these days.


These are among the saddest stories I have and they all include the most traumatized boys, those with the lowest levels of education. I often find that those with more school experience know better how to deal with their emotions, and they understand that going to school and getting an education is good for them no matter what happens in the future. I have had so many laughs with these boys at school. I taught two different classes doing an introductory course at our local upper secondary school. In one of the classes we had so much fun together. We would have 6 lessons of professional studies each week, and that class had no curriculum so I was free to do what I wished. We would do art or do different writing tasks. One such written task I gave them was: «English teacher gone missing. Students suspected». I had hung «missing» posters up around the classroom and they would write a newspaper story on how I had disappeared. One of the students wrote and elaborate story on who had lasts seen me and where I had gone missing- it was a very creative story.


For English the same class was assigned to write about their best friend for homework. One of the students wrote, describing his best friends hair like spaghetti: «and of course I love spaghetti».


I would often go to the refugee centre and visit my students. We would drink tea together and talk or watch TV. Sometimes I was served dinner, they often made biriyani, a chicken and rice dish. In Norway schools has this project each year where the goal is to learn about the theme and raise money that goes towards building schools in areas with high poverty or who are war torn. Some schools work with the theme for a week and call it «international week». The upper secondary where I worked the «international week» would be finished by an»international evening».

And that year I and some of my students cooked biriyani for 300 people. We worked all day- without breaks preparing the rice.


Christmas 2016, playing Scrabble at my house


One of the girls’ portrait for our instagram


Playing in the snow

Drawing a map of the class in snow

Enjoying a cold and clear winter day.



One of the boys said he really wanted to go skiing. So he borrowed booths and skis from my mother and out skiing we went. We took several trips during our winter holiday when the snow was fresh and the sun shining.

I have tried to stay in touch with most of my students who have either fled the country or who have been granted asylum/protection. Those who get to stay and have moved to their allocated municipality- I have more quickly lost contact with, but I have tried to help the boys who were returned to Afghanistan by giving them adresses to aid organizations, lawyers or other people in Kabul who will be able to provide them help in form of a roof over their head or a job. One of the boys detained by the police in 2016 still lives in Kabul and is doing well all things considered. Even though limited language skills makes it hard to have proper conversations, we send each other messages every now and then.

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