Thursday, December 15, 2016

Village People

In the years after the Second World War, Pestalozzi Village was established in the East Sussex countryside at Seddlescombe, just north of Hastings. It was to be a haven and home for displaced and orphaned children from refugee camps around Europe. The children lived at the village in small groups of their own nationality, were educated in their native tongue but also taught English. Once they had an adequate grasp of the language, they attended local schools. The main criterion for a child’s selection was the absence of proper family care and some British children from deprived backgrounds were also given the opportunity to live at Pestalozzi.

The community was named after the 19th century Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who believed that divisions in society could best be closed by educating the whole person – their head, hands and heart: academic and practical education took care of the head and hands, the warmth of the surrogate family that the community provided took care of the heart. A Pestalozzi Village had been established in Switzerland straight after the war, and the British version was founded soon after by Dr. Henry Alexander, a Jewish refugee who had settled in Britain in the 1930s. Having found asylum in this country from the trials of pre-war Nazi Germany, he was keen to provide sanctuary for those caught up in the aftermath.

The project had a high profile and captured the imagination of the public, who supported fundraising on a large scale. Pestalozzi was also feted in the media as a ground-breaking and worthy initiative. As the original European children reached adulthood and moved out into the wider community, the profile of the village began to alter. Although Pestalozzi took in refugee children from Tibet in the wake of the famine and Chinese oppression that had killed thousands of people in the early 1960s, the focus changed to educating children from the developing world and then returning them to their own countries to utilise their skills. And this is broadly how Pestalozzi continues to operate: providing tertiary education scholarships to visiting students from around the world.

I am not sure that anything like Pestalozzi could be founded now. I saw a cartoon recently called Post-Brexit Nativity: it depicted the innkeeper on stage telling a bewildered Mary and Joseph that there was no room for them. The watching audience were in agreement: “Hear, hear!” they cried, “You tell them!” they shouted, “We’re full!” Sadly, in today’s climate, it looked all too true. We are now a long way from the post-war spirit of compassion and goodwill. It appears that many of us are not prepared to accept people - and we have to remember that they are people - of different nationalities and beliefs who are seeking refuge in our country. Nowadays, it seems, we turn our backs on the troubled quarters of humanity rather than welcome them in. Merry Christmas.

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