“I’m sad because today I lost my favorite marker at school”.
These were the first words Karol told me when I met her. The 9 year old girl is a refugee from Honduras who now lives in the South of Spain. She has gone through very hard times, including the terrible violence she and her family had to witness back in Honduras. A violence which forced them to leave home, friends, relatives – everything – behind.
Despite all this, Karol is adapting little by little to her new life. Proof of this are her daily concerns at school such as passing an exam or losing a marker. Ordinary situations for every child – refugee or not – if they get to have a normal life for their age.
Of course, Karol also has plenty of funny stories to tell. I couldn’t help laughing when she told me about that sleepover in which she and her friends watched a horror movie. They were so scared that they couldn’t sleep and ended up eating all the ice cream in the freezer!
I met Karol during a video shoot for World Refugee Day. We wanted to know how refugee children in Spain are integrating in everyday Spanish society. I was lucky to spend some time with Karol but also with Mina (Iraq), Ahmed (Libya) and Alpha (Mali).
Although some of them were a bit camera-shy, I could see how quickly these kids have become part of their environment by what I saw in between interviews. In barely a year, they are fluent in Spanish —with a lovely Andalusian accent— and they have made many friends.
Ahmed, 16, likes Spain because he can practice his favorite sport: basketball. In Libya, trainings weren’t so frequent, as the coach wouldn’t always show up. Now, he trains Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he can also join other trainings on Mondays and Wednesdays. His Spanish coach, Óscar, told me he tries to treat him as any other boy on the team, and I could see that was exactly how it was.
Mina, 15, was really worried when she first arrived in Spain. Back in Iraq, she used to be one of the best students in her class, but when she started school in Spain, she began failing her exams. Now that the school year is ending, she has managed to pass all her exams thanks to her willpower and the tutoring of a volunteer from the refugee reception center.
Alpha, 8, loves playing football and making jokes. It was amazing to see this child playing with his friends in the courtyard of his school. He used more slang words from this region of Spain than the ones a Spaniard like me could know! I also met Rafael, his best friend, who surprised me by saying: “If I lived abroad, I would like the other children to play with me”.
Karol, Ahmed, Mina and Alpha are positive examples of how refugees’ integration is more than possible. They have been fortunate to have such nice people around them. Teachers, friends, coaches… Almost everyone in the lives of these children has welcomed them with open arms.
But not all refugee children are in the same situation. There are still huge challenges to deal with not only in Spain, but in every country where refugees are arrive, as they flee violence and death.
Everyone, from governments to individuals, can play their role in this process. All of us can do something, however small, to try and make these children feel at home.
Because, to welcome, is instinctively human.
Lara Aparicio is storyteller at the UNICEF Spanish National Committee