Learning where it's needed: Crisis Classroom

Kate and refugees share a meal in a co-created activity.

Kate and refugees share a meal in a co-created activity.


“My mother also wants to learn greek,” says a little voice at the start of the video. On a table covered with coloured pens and bowls of spices, a hand points to one bowl, and a male voice asks for its Greek name. The chatter is about language and spice names; the atmosphere in the short clip of sharing of knowledge in a safe friendly space.

“Making spice kits at @mosaico.house," says the caption. “We spent the afternoon with the young people who live in this wonderful safe space and shelter for women and children in #Athens. Together, we learnt new words in Arabic, Farsi, Greek and English whilst dreaming up meals to cook with these new kits (Afghan chicken and Cinnabon’s!) ….

“Some of the kids made kits to give as gifts to their mothers and others gave them as gifts to themselves. We had such a good time together and we’ll be back to make something else together next week.”

Kate McAllister and Darren Abrahams, co-founders of Crisis Classroom.

Kate McAllister and Darren Abrahams, co-founders of Crisis Classroom.

This is just one picture amongst many of the Instagram diary of Melissa and Alon, currently travelling along the refugee routes of Europe in a transit van as the mobile unit of Crisis Classroom, a Brighton-based project that gives displaced people the chance to learn the skills they feel they need to cope in new worlds. 

Crisis Classroom was founded in 2016 by Kate McAllister and Darren Abrahams, a teacher and trauma therapist who were driven to develop the project in response to 2015’s refugee crisis. Put aside thoughts of English GCSEs and Maths A levels, however; what Crisis Classroom offers is reflective and organic, responding directly to the immediate needs of the refugees themselves.

“It’s not traditional teaching,” admits Kate. “We ask what [the refugees] want to achieve, what they already have and what’s missing and what we can do together to fill in those gaps. It’s about fostering independence and developing skills and getting to know each other.”

Learning often begins with a shared activity, like making spice kits or cooking: “In Calais, we started by making soup together and learning basic French vocabulary so that they could find ingredients. Basic needs were met and some language was learnt,” says Kate. “From there, we started talking about one another’s countries, speaking more French.”

The group then decided they wanted somewhere comfortable to sit while they ate. “So we started to share carpentry skills - which then developed into the building of a school. They had probably had between 80 to 90 per cent of the skills needed; all we did was bring in what was missing - some French language and a few ways to build a roof.”

Within two months, the group had gone from being complete strangers to a community that had built their own school for their children. 

This wasn’t the original concept of Crisis Classroom; its moment of real genesis - when intention turned into something else - occurred shortly after Kate arrived in Calais for the first time in 2015. “I thought I’d be able to leverage my network of educators and send learning resources. Then I met the people there, many of whom were 16, 17, 18-year-old boys …

“As a mother and a teacher, it hit me like a sledgehammer that no box of books was ever going to be the right box of books,” says Kate. “The ability to turn up week in, week out, and follow a course of study, it’s just not possible in a place like that, when everything is moving and in chaos. That’s when I realised I needed to look at everything in a completely different way.”

The resulting approach is a blend of Kate and Darren’s skills: Kate had worked in secondary schools for 15 years, teaching self-managed learning for students; Darren is a trauma therapist. “Between the two of us, we’ve made a hybrid of what we understand about the nervous system, and trauma how to work effectively as a community,” she says. 

They call it Zero Waste Education, a system that empowers learners and educators to co-construct experiences together based on evolving need, encouraging the growth of safe spaces where the capacity for learning can grow. Bringing education to displaced people is a distinct methodology; so far, Crisis Classroom has trained up to 300 people; an online course has trained a further 7,000. 


Refugees and teachers work together in a project for Crisis Classroom.

“The important thing isn’t what you’re learning but how you’re learning it and the skills you develop each time you learn something new,” says Kate. “Resilience is a given for people who have walked half way across the world. But what happens often is that, when you stop fleeing - literally - for your life, all the trauma comes to the surface. 

Inevitably, there is a therapeutic element to the work: “The most important thing is understanding how to self-regulate, how to navigate a new world, how to make new relationships, how to cope with disappointment and the barriers that get put into your way, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident by the systems, that are in place … 

“It’s also about how to recognise which bits you can do by yourself and which you can’t - and learning how to reach out and ask for help when you need it. Being able to manage life in a new country, to make new friends, these are things that build each time you come into contact with a new group, or learn something new.”

"It hit me like a sledgehammer that no box of books was ever going to be the right box of books."

Inclusion - at every stage - is key. “If you have a community of women with small children, you need to make sure the activities include the children because they’re not going to leave them - and the grannies and all the other people traditionally hiding in the shadows. They’re the people we try to reach.”

What happens, very quickly is that, as confidence build, dynamics shift. “You turn up and say ‘we’re going to learn cooking’ - and they’ll go along for a few days. And then they’ll say, ‘No, dear, that’s not how you do it.’ And, gently, I become the student,” smiles Kate. “We build something new together which is neither their way or our way. It’s a new way.”

Melissa and Alon, volunteer teachers currently travelling from Brighton to the Balkans for Crisis Classroom.

Melissa and Alon, volunteer teachers currently travelling from Brighton to the Balkans for Crisis Classroom.

The mobile school is the Classroom’s latest venture, with Melissa and Alon taking the mobile school - with teaching resources and inflatable classroom (“It lives in a sports bag and it goes up in ten minutes. We can go to a camp in the woods and we can make this big bright pink welcoming space,” says Kate, happily) - wherever they feel they’re needed.

Skills and activities are passed along the way. The spice kits, for example, originated when Melissa and Alan visited The Ecole Internatinale in Geneva. “Their students made a whole load of kits for us to take out on the road. Along the way, we gave them and their attached messages of welcome and solidarity to people who need them, then give people the chance to make a new kit and message to pass on to someone else … “

Projects have “a natural ebb and flow,” says Kate. “We pop up and create the solution to what’s needed at that time. We work very intensively on a project, several hours a day, but we don’t maintain anything artificially.” When a project ends, the team drift away again, leaving resources and contact details but allowing the project its own life. 

And so it will go on … Kate reflects: “Every time you see somebody’s life turn around, after a really simple act of human kindness, and help them get from that place where they can’t talk to somebody else in another language to being confident enough to go shopping for things that they want: that is huge because then you know that their life is going to be able to continue.”

Find out more at www.crisisclassroom.com

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