Lessons “Sofia” can teach

Sofia, a virtual child created to give a face to refugee children, haunts Cork Life Centre’s deputy director, Rachel Lucey. Here, she explains why.

Sofia

Sofia is a virtual child.

She was created by UNICEF Sweden using 500 images of real children in conflict to represent many millions of refugee children globally.

“I am not real I’m the face of all the children suffering from emergencies no one talks about,” the tagline of the campaign states.

But the issues Sofia has stirred up for me are so very real, and her image has haunted me ever since I first saw it.

Sofia not only represents children across the world, invisible in their plights, but those closer to home, the children whose stories are never heard, and who never get the opportunities they so deserve.

Every day in the course of my work, I am deeply privileged to work with children whose human challenges and struggles have left them on the edges of, and eventually outside, the mainstream education system.

When families and children are brave enough to trust you with their stories and journeys and allow you to work with them, that knowledge and privilege drives you to understand, to try to make a positive impact – and to advocate on their behalf.

It is easy to be shocked and disillusioned with the lack of a response and lack of empathy to the refugee crisis and to the suffering of children in any circumstance or any part of the world. How can people not respond?

It is easy to depersonalise what we do not know, what we do not understand, what we have not experienced. But if you meet a Sofia then all this will change, and you will think and worry and feel not just for Sofia, but for all the children in similar circumstances that you have not had the opportunity to meet.

I have never met a child whose story, strength, unique personality and talents did not teach me something wonderful and hopeful about the world, albeit a confusing one that seems brutal at times.

And while I cannot always be certain of the impact we at the Cork Life Centre have made, and always feel we could have done more, I am at least assured these children were given opportunities, became part of a community where they were treasured, valued and where they mattered; where somebody missed them if they did not appear, where there was someone to not just listen but hear them, and where if there was a problem we were always ready to try and work on it together.

So regardless of the onward journey or direction these children’s lives took and even if there are further struggles waiting for them on the horizon, I can feel assured they know our red doors are always open to them.

But as referrals increase and resources remain the same, it is with a heavy heart that I think about all the children I will not meet- those we will not greet at the red door. And there are many. We receive calls almost daily seeking placements at a level of demand we cannot meet. This is one of the most difficult parts of the job.

There are many children in Cork alone –  over 4,000 annually that leave education early  – that we will not meet. Roughly 10% of children in this country do not complete senior cycle education and this figure doubles in DEIS schools. I do not know what all these children look like, and I do not have a Sofia to represent these many faces and stories. But I know without hesitation there is something good to be unlocked in each one, if only we work to find the key.

We need to move beyond statistics and stereotypes and recognise the individual needs, strengths and rights of all children to learning environments that meet their needs not just educational but social, personal and human.

Every child deserves a champion, deserves at they very least their ‘one good adult.’ But how are we going to achieve this if we do not recognise them individually? This for me is what Sofia represents. An attempt to recognise not just a collective story, but each individual one.

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