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Human Rights: Education with a Social Conscience

by Christina Shunnarah - January 07, 2009

When I started working within the refugee community of Clarkston, I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and anxious by the many painful stories and experiences of the children. One young girl from Sudan always remains with me as a symbol of my awakening in developing a human rights approach in my work in the field of education.

My journey in human rights work within the field of education began when I started working with the refugee community in Clarkston, Georgia. Clarkston is home to thousands of resettled refugees from all over the world including Afghanistan, Burundi, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Vietnam, to name a few countries. The resettlement process for refugees is long and arduous. They often come here against their will, fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. A most forgotten element within families going through so much conflict, change and flight are the youth. Families are trying to start over, find jobs, learn new languages and survive.

Before my current position as an elementary school teacher at the International Community School, I was a youth program coordinator at a refugee social service organization in Clarkston, Georgia. This position gave me invaluable insight on community collaboration and involvement. I had the opportunity to meet people from a variety of organizations - social workers, professors, writers, activists, therapists, and police officers. The work in collaborating with many professionals across the fields gave me insight on the importance of collaboration concerning the needs of youth.

When I started working within the refugee community of Clarkston, I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and anxious by the many painful stories and experiences of the children. One young girl from Sudan always remains with me as a symbol of my awakening in developing a human rights approach in my work in the field of education.

Rima came to the United States during the summer months of 2001 and was enrolled in our summer camp. I still remember that first day she walked into the program. She was waiting at the entrance looking completely lost and confused. I sat down with her at a table and asked her to write her name. She wrote it in Arabic and was surprised when I was able to read it. Being Palestinian American, I have a little background in spoken and written Arabic. She smiled at my attempts at communication. To encourage her, I wrote my name in Arabic as well, and an instant connection was formed through writing.

I worked with her everyday during the summer months, sitting with her at a table, going through the English alphabet. We wrote, read simple books, talked and played games. She was quite an artist and would make elaborate drawings, paintings, and sculptures of her homeland.

We often took walks to the library and communicated with a mixture of Arabic and English. She opened up gradually, explaining in simple words her experiences and expressed sorrow at her lost life back home. I always felt that there was more to her than she could express, that she had something to tell me, to reveal to me. She often told me stories through her artwork, giving me pictures almost daily. But something was hidden within her pictures that I couldn’t figure out.

Soon summer camp ended and she had to enroll in school. She came to visit me and expressed her dislike of “American” schools. The teachers are not nice, she said. They don’t know. They don’t know. She often repeated. I would listen as she poured out her feelings at the end of the day; she had trouble adjusting to the new system, it was hard to fit in with the other children, her clothes weren’t in fashion, her accent was targeted, and her features were unique. I was an open heart and ear for her during these times of painful acculturation and adjustment. Over time, she came to visit me less as she made some new friends at her school. She would come occasionally to give me a drawing, a picture, or tell me a story.  

I will never forget the day Rima came to visit me late in the fall. She seemed anxious and withdrawn and I knew immediately that something was seriously wrong. She opened up and started crying, saying in the midst of tears that she missed her mother back in Sudan. This confused me since she supposedly lived with her mother here in Atlanta. She told me that her real mother was back in Sudan and the family she lived with wouldn’t let her talk to her mother. The tears and stories would not stop. She felt safe enough to disclose that the family she lives with wanted to pull her out of school so that she could serve them. She explained that they were not her real family. She was brought to this country against her will and was supposed to keep it a secret. She was told that if she said anything she would be arrested. Her real family was still back home in Sudan.

I felt helpless and confused. What could I do to help Rima? I have never been prepared to handle a situation like this. A sick feeling arose in my stomach. For a moment, I panicked. I was speechless as she attempted to express her emotional pain and anguish. I called the local Department of Family and Children’s Services, but was put on hold. The silence of waiting seemed like an eternity.

I remembered attending a workshop at a conference about immigrant women and human rights violations.1 This is where my contacts in the community proved invaluable. I contacted the executive director of a human rights organization called Women Watch Afrika (WWA) for some insight into the situation, after feeling frustrated with the local social service providers. She came to the center immediately. After a few interviews and talks with the young girl, she broke it all down to me. Rima was a victim of human trafficking.

What is human trafficking? It is the recruitment of individuals for the purposes of forced labor, prostitution or servitude. Trafficking victims are usually recruited by force or deception. Sometimes, they are simply abducted.2 This modern form of slavery has affected thousands of innocent people worldwide. With the case of Rima, she was brought to Atlanta with a family who claimed that she was their daughter. They were planning on pulling her out of school and moving to a new state the day she came to visit me at the center. Their plans were not realized. She was pulled from the home immediately and put into a foster home, thanks to the timely help of WWA.

My whole philosophy of education radically changed after coming into contact with Rima. It was in this moment I realized the power of my actions to make a difference. It was also at this moment that an awakening arose in me, an awakening to the power of social consciousness, awareness and activism.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)3 which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the city of Atlanta hosted a series of events: film festivals, art exhibits, youth performances, panel discussions, music and spoken word. Many of the events were sponsored by the Center for Civil and Human Rights4, which is scheduled to open in Atlanta in 2009.

The UDHR is a declaration that guarantees the rights and freedoms of all people and includes economic, social, cultural, political, and civil rights. The Declaration asserts that all people should be treated with dignity and worth. People have a right to equality, liberty, and personal security, a right to education and an adequate standard of living, and the right to freedom of belief and religion, to name a few of the 30 articles of the Declaration. This Declaration is the foundation of freedom and justice in the world.5

A human rights perspective helps me see students in a broader context as well as helps me understand the harsh political realities of some of their lives. The UDHR anniversary celebration reminds me to think deeply about my social and ethical responsibilities as a teacher to students in an international school environment. By being open to students as well as some of the issues they face, I have more of an understanding of the complexities of their lives, and I am more equipped to make a difference. All of the cultural boundary crossings only remain on the surface, unless we explore the deeper currents of conflict and politics that affect our lives and the lives of the students.


1 The organization Refugee Women’s Network, www.refugeewomensnetwork.org, has a local chapter and hosts a conference every two years. Their workshops focus on women rights, social justice, refugee and immigrant issues, and international education to name a few. Glory Kilanko, who is the executive director of Women Watch Afrika (www.womenwatchafrika.org), presented a workshop on the vulnerabilities and exploitation of African girls and women.

2 For more information on human trafficking see - www.humantrafficking.org

3.There are many organizations and websites concerning human rights and the anniversary of the UDHR including: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights www.unhchr.ch/udhr, Human Rights Atlanta, www.humanrightsatlanta.org, Every Human Has Rights www.everyhumanhasrights.org, UDHR 60th anniversary www.un.org/events/humanrights/udhr60/, and UNICEF- Know Your rights http://www.unicef.org/knowyourrights/.

4 The Center for Civil and Human Rights www.cchrpartnership.org

5.There is also a separate document that guarantees the rights of children as well which is known as the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Please refer to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights- The Convention of the Rights of the Child http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm. Some other valuable websites include: http://www.unicef.org/knowyourrights/, http://cyberschoolbus.un.org, www.children’shumanrights.com, and http://youthforhumanrights.org.

On UNICEF’s homepage http://www.unicef.org/crc.htm, it explains that children everywhere should have:

1. The right to survival

2. The right to develop to the fullest

3. The right to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation

4. The right to participate fully in family, cultural, and social life

The Convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care, education, and legal, civil, and social services.

The CRC turns 18 this year.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 07, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15472, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:49:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Christina Shunnarah
    International Community School
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINA SHUNNARAH has over eight years of experience working with refugees, both adults and children. After her tenure at Refugee Family Services, she joined the staff of the International Community School (ICS) in 2002. She is currently a kindergarten teacher at ICS in Decatur, Georgia, which is a Dekalb county charter school. ICS is unique in its mission to educate and integrate American-born and refugee children from all over the world - including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. ICS serves over 400 students, from kindergarten to sixth grade. She also teaches courses in educational sociology at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. She has an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education from the University of Georgia and an M.A.T. in Teaching from Oglethorpe University. She is interested in ways of supporting refugee children’s growth through the arts.
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