Dr Mona Jebril, R4HC-MENA Research Fellow (University of Cambridge, CBR)

At first glance, three advantages of Oxford RSC International Summer School in Forced Migration seem obvious: it is international, at Oxford University, and happening in the summer! Nonetheless, this Summer School was one of the best short trainings I have ever had for different reasons. That said, as an alumnus of Oxford University, I am quite used to Oxford and the study system at its university, which is international. Summer is also not particularly my favorite time of the year to do readings and attend classes.

Then, why have I enjoyed it, and what can we learn from it for our capacity building workshops? 

It is intensive, but not deadly serious.

Insight #1:  Balance

From day ONE, we received an “unexpected” Summer School (heavy) bag that was full of interesting books. Later on, magazines and presentation notes were also distributed. A usual training day would take place between 9-5:30 pm. However, we also used to do team readings in the lunch breaks and weekends, and sometimes even attend additional sessions in the evening. Despite this, the general supportive atmosphere at the Center and in the tutorial groups, as well as a range of activities that were designed to promote team work and enhance learner’s experience succeeded in creating a balance. A sense of humour that the tutors enjoyed was also helpful, especially as we had to deal with topics on forced migration, some of which were hard to discuss. All in all, balance was necessary as it made the Summer School although intensive, so kindly so!

You work in a small group in a big community

Insight #2: Connectivity and Reciprocity

The Summer School was divided into six entities (tutorial groups). Each of these met separately, exchanging discussions and reflections as a family; humorously, sometimes the groups competed with each other. We had the opportunity to work and network with members from other tutorial groups, separately or collectively. This provided an opportunity for a wider exchange, and also to forge friendships which made our time in Oxford even more interesting. Furthermore, the RSC administration also made efforts to connect us through Whatsapp and Facebook groups, which were used by the participants to arrange outings, and share photos, but also to post articles and film links related to Forced Migration. The connectivity and reciprocity among the different members of the RSC made the participants enjoy working in small groups, while belonging to a larger community.

Different in perspective, united in Passion.

Insight #3: Meaningful selection of participants

Here in the picture, you can meet some of my colleagues. They represent various nationalities, but also disciplines: Law, political economy, anthropology, health, psychology and education.  Among them is also the academic and the practitioner, who work in different parts of the world on issues related (directly and indirectly) to Forced Migration. This creative mix provided a unique space for dialogue, enriching the argument with different (and sometimes contrastive) perspectives. Yet what bonded us together was our passion to extend our knowledge on Forced Migration and contribute to improving refugees’ lives; we came here by choice. If selecting the participants in this Summer School was done arbitrarily, then we should still keep note of this lucky coincidence, although most likely it was the work of the amazing Summer School committee. This meaningful selection created an engaged cohort that fostered the success of everyday activities, as well as contributing valuable insights and energy to the discussions.

Takes you out of your comfort zone, and you still like it!

Insight #4: Challenge in a safe environment

In one session, I acted as a debater; in another as a representative of non-governmental organisations in East Timor; and in another a representative of the US in the UN General Assembly on Palestine.  These occasions pushed me out of my comfort zone, as for example, I had to say things in speeches/arguments, which I do not necessarily endorse or have sufficient knowledge of. The safe and supportive environment of the Summer School, however, encouraged me to try and accept being not perfect – for a perfectionist, this is hard! More interestingly, I got involved without hesitation, or worry about impression management; I felt humbled and empowered to go with the experience. Instead of tension, being out of our comfort zone was a situation that created opportunities for laughter and intimacy among the group, and introduced us to each other’s hidden talents and capabilities.

You work in team, and solo!

Insight #5: Variety of learners, variety of pedagogical tools

One of the strengths of the training was its effective utilization of variety of pedagogical tools. The arrangement of activities varied from attending lecturers and panel discussions, to working in small and large teams, as well as individually. Through these arrangements, we conducted readings, debates, simulations, film screenings, and participated in tutorials, and there was even a Summer School Festival of Ideas. This variety was important to cater for different types of learners, but they were not only aimed at variety per se, as they were also meaningful and well-structured.  In brief, the Summer School mirrored aspects of the larger experience of learning at Oxford University, and yet offered it successfully over two weeks.

You look closely, but from a distance!

Insight #6 : A critical space

Because the participants were highly diverse, in terms of ethnicity, institution, and country, creating a critical space was crucial to enhance learning from each other, but also to avoid unwanted tension, and the possibility of conflict. Therefore, topics that we discussed seemed to be somehow distant from current and high-profile events. Instead, the simulation, for example, aimed to provide an insight into the politics of decision-making processes regarding refugees in East Timor, which have been relatively far from everyday news. From the onset of the training, the participants were invited by their tutors to leave their specific institutional context behind, and take this encounter as an opportunity to think, learn and reflect as individuals. Thus, although we delved deep into issues such as gender, smuggling, trafficking, Refugee Status Determination, and Palestinian International Law, a distance was maintained that allowed a space for criticality without prejudice.

Yes, you can have it all in one go!

Insight # 7:  Humanity cannot be ignored.

For the majority of the participants, this was their first (or second) time to come to Oxford. Although being interested in tourism and shopping did not seem to distract them from their focus on work during the training, it probably played in the minds of some as a second commitment that needed to be done. It was helpful therefore for the School to take this into consideration by arranging weekend activities and city tours, open-air lunches, parties and formal dinners. This all has added to the quality of participants’ experience during the two weeks, and provided opportunities for informal interaction among the participants and the administrative and academic staff. That said, yes, humanizing the trainings is important, and it is definitely possible to combine all in one go!

…and finally you receive a certificate, and it feels redundant, but also useful!

Insight #8: Impact learning is what matters, but incentives are also important!

I probably was not in need of the “Certificate of Participation” which I received in the final ceremony. Nonetheless, I was still happy to receive it as I know this could be useful in future job applications, especially in the Middle East. From my first-hand experience in Gaza, I can state that a certificate is necessary for your training to be acknowledged by your institution. In fact, for some, the certificate can act as a main incentive which encourages them to attend the course, since it is linked to credit or promotion. Conversely, a certificate does not suffice, if the quality of the training was not helpful. Impact learning is ultimately what matters, but context specific incentives are also important. A certificate could also be perceived as a symbolic gesture of achievement, and of course, as a souvenir of a lovely time at the RSC in Oxford.

Many thanks go to R4HC-MENA programme for sponsoring my attendance and participation at Oxford RSC International Summer School (7-19 July 2019).