by Yvonne Robertson
Brian Germain, high school social studies teacher at the International School of Beijing (ISB), recently traveled to Bangladesh to bring aid to Rohingya refugees. Mr. Germain has volunteered at refugee camps during two summer breaks and one winter break, helping some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
In the summer of 2016, Mr. Germain was sitting in a refugee camp in Greece with a teenager paralyzed from the waist down.
“When his family left Syria, he chose to stay for another year to finish high school because he wanted to be a biochemist,” said Mr. Germain. “Now, all of a sudden, just because this kid wanted an education, he can’t walk and is bedridden for the rest of his life. It’s mind-blowing to hear stories like this. It’s not right.”
When he returns to the classroom, he can’t help but integrate his experiences. He uses these trips to lead discussions and teach lessons about nature vs. nurture, environment, cognitive processes, privilege, and compassion.
“They get incredibly quiet,” he said. “We discuss things like the cognitive process that makes a crisis like this break out. We look at the hierarchy of needs, what are the needs that are being met and not met. We discuss privilege and class differences, and how these affect us psychologically.”
Mr. Germain spent his three-week winter break at one of the world’s largest refugee camps, the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh. The camp houses hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
Besides Greece, Mr. Germain had also volunteered at a camp in Lebanon last summer prior to his trip to Kutupalong.
But neither experience would prepare him for Bangladesh.
“It was pretty bad,” he said. “Greece was two years removed from the major influx, so for the most part there was a solid camp management, focal points for medical care, decent housing structures. The army is still in charge of regulating the Rohingya crisis because it’s a crowd control issue, but they’re not capable of managing all of it.”
The newness of the situation and constant influx of new people made it difficult to connect with smaller NGOs that hadn’t quite set up a robust plan of action. Larger organizations required longer time commitments. It meant Mr. Germain ended up traveling alone, unsupported by an organization.
A passion to help to the point of being incapable of inaction had been ignited within him since Greece. It was this drive that fuelled his persistence in the face of numerous obstacles and little structure.
Every morning, he would take an almost three-hour trip to get to Kutupalong, where he would meet with person after person, organization after organization, consistently running up against barriers and frustrations.
“I have a crazy Type A, fast-paced personality, so it was very hard for me to leave without a plan,” he said. “But people kept saying ‘Just let us know when you get here.’"
“Once I landed, I couldn’t find a decent NGO that I trusted or wanted to connect with, so I ended up doing what I could on my own. It’s very difficult. The situation is so new and so big—people don’t know what’s going on under their noses.”
A glimmer of light
A stroke of luck and a chance encounter with a civil servant in charge of distribution at the camp changed the course of Mr. Germain’s trip. This injection of hope resuscitated what had been shaping up to be a futile experience.
He tailed the civil servant for his remaining time at the camp, shopping for, and distributing aid.
“It was a wild experience,” he said. “Food was a primary concern. The World Food Program is supposed to distribute supplies every two weeks, but sometimes the infrastructure isn’t strong enough to do this, or the allocation gets messed up where certain families get double the amount and others have nothing.”
Mr. Germain was further introduced to several Rohingya leaders, who helped him determine what food was needed and which families needed it most.
He, along with the leaders, then winded their way to a nearby city via tiny tuk-tuks. They spent the day “wheeling and dealing,” negotiating food prices at markets for almost eight hours.
The ride back to the camp was a convoy of tuk-tuks followed by two dump trucks filled with food and supplies, leaving Mr. Germain exhausted yet with a renewed sense of optimism.
“By the end of the day, we had all this rice, onions, like 500 kilos of dried fish—it was awesome.”
The following day had about 40 men forming an assembly line to divide the supplies into 500 bags for the most critical families.
“It was really cool to see,” said Mr. Germain. “I relied on the local leaders to identify who was most in need of the food, and trust in that moment that they had the best interest of their people.
“The leaders are well-respected by the people they represent, so I do believe that to be the truth. They themselves fled the violence. I spent three or four days with them, walking around the camp and feeling out the situation, so I felt good about it.”
Shadowing and learning from the local leaders quickly led to another project: sourcing sewing machines. Many of the women in the camps could make and sell clothes but lacked the equipment to do it.
So, it was back on the tuk-tuk. After a two-hour ride and more negotiating, they returned to the camp—the back of the tuk-tuk packed with sewing machines and supplies, while scissors bounced at their feet.
“Little people like me are able to fill one tiny gap, like handing out sewing machines or providing food where there isn’t any,” said Mr. Germain. “Growing up, when someone died, you brought over a casserole of food to their family, so that food was one less thing they needed to worry about.
“People at the camp are sitting around worrying constantly about their kids, their education, money, what their next steps will be. Being able to provide supplies to those 500 or so families, even though the number is small, it meant I could help them with one less thing to worry about for even a short period of time.”
Educating tomorrow’s policy-makers
One evening, sitting on a hill overlooking the camp, Mr. Germain watched for hours as lines upon lines of kids returned from the surrounding wooded areas carrying bundles of sticks.
“They would chop these sticks for firewood and sell them. But it was when they’re out in the woods, away from the community—that’s where the most kidnappings or abductions happen. They just get plucked.”
Mr. Germain and another volunteer decided to spend the next day with the kids, trailing them and helping collect sticks.
“I thought maybe I could protect them, even if for one day. We walked around for hours and by the time we were done, we were dead. But the kids do this every day, some as young as four years old.”
Mr. Germain was recently asked by one of the Grade 4 teachers at ISB to speak to the students about his experiences, as the class is learning about human migration. His memory of collecting sticks will be one of the stories he will tell to resonate with the similarly aged students.
Providing different perspectives and nuances is a priority, padding standard curriculum with discussions that foster critical thinking, curiosity, and empathy.
“I want to let them know what’s going on outside their world,” said Mr. Germain, who, with a mother, sister, aunt, and uncle as teachers, has the profession in his blood.
“It’s important to show them the influence of genetics and environment on your life. We talk about people being able to overcome the environment they’re born into, but that’s a difficult process. The UN says the average stay in a refugee camp is 14 years. That’s generations. It’s hard for people to pull themselves up from there.”
Through his fundraisers and various initiatives helping refugees, Mr. Germain has had the opportunity to reconnect with past students, as well.
“It’s so great to see what they’re up to,” he said. “They send me updates, and it’s just like, oh man, you’ve got it. You made it—you have the skillset, you’re curious, you ask questions. It’s great to see that.
“If we look at the future policymakers and influencers, they’re here. That happens now. It starts with primary and high school education.”
To read more about Brian Germain’s experiences, follow his blog: https://learninglyceum.org/.