How Can We Teach Those Who’ve Been Ostracized? – Reflection from Niwa Dwitama, AC4 Fellow 2018

While the rule of law and rehabilitation programs for people convicted to terrorism-related charges are important elements of Counter-Terrorism policy, the life of their family members, such as wives and children, are also affected by societal perception and labeling due to their affiliation to terrorism. “Most of these children had dropped out of school because of the stigma. The local community no longer accepted them as the way it was before,” said the founder of a religious school which serves as a center of rehabilitation and deradicalization in North Sumatera of Indonesia.

As an AC4 graduate fellow 2018, I conducted an immersion study on “Capturing the Understanding of Peace, Tolerance an Extremism in two religious boarding schools in Indonesia.” This blog post is a reflection on that study in the religious boarding school in North Sumatera (“the School NS”). The school is founded by a deradicalized ex-terrorist as a center of rehabilitation for 41 students, 70 percent of whom have been ostracized from society due to their parents’ affiliation with terrorism. This affiliation, along with negative societal perceptions, have prevented these students from accessing the public education system. The School NS exists to help these students to reconnect with society, prepare them for working life after graduation and break the vicious cycle of terrorism.

Photo: One fully operational building used as a classroom with a dormitory room next to it—built with the donation from local and national donors. Other Classroom buildings are still under the construction.

In collaboration with Reality Check Approach (RCA) researchers community, this study applied some elements of RCA and combined insights from interviewing some schools’ stakeholders. The RCA allowed me to focus more on conversations rather than the interview, and on living and staying rather than visiting and being school-centered, and thus interacting with students and teachers in both the private space and public spaces. This approach enabled me to immerse and soak myself as much as I could into their daily lives and to learn directly from the perspectives of the students and teachers regarding their school activities, education system, perception and experience in general.

Photo: The asphalt road to the School NS. With the support of provincial government, the maze (right) and cassava plantation (left) are managed by the school foundation—the profit of which is used to fund the operational activities of the school that exempted the students from tuition fee.

The RCA method was selected to help understand the multidimensional aspects of rehabilitation (i.e., children as “victims” of terrorism) and deradicalization programs (i.e., the process of abandoning an extremist worldview and no longer accepting the use of violence to affect social change). The study also serves to provide insights for improving program evaluation and, more broadly, to understand how and why things change through the interpretive lens of students and teachers. There are three main insights I would like to share through this post.

The importance of building a trusted relationship and personal connection/approach in the teaching process

Engendering personal connection and trust between students and students-teachers become significant elements of the learning process. In the school NS, the students call the female teachers as Ummi (“Mother”). In their own opinions, the students tend to be closer more to the female teachers rather than the male. Additionally, the school does not allow the use of corporal punishment towards the students and emphasize its teaching on the importance of tolerance through civic education subject. The school believes that the physical sacrifice declared by terrorist groups are considered as a misguided interpretation of Jihad.

Limited civil interaction with a wider segment of society (i.e., outside of the school)

With a tight schedule and disciplined boarding school system, the school does not provide avenues for the students to engage more with a wider segment of society, including those of their similar age. Most students interact with a monoculture background (e.g., Moslems, similar Holaqoh or Quran recitation group in the school). However, many students expressed their willingness to meet with and befriend other people, including those peers outside of the schools and non-Moslem friends. The study suggests that any intervention programs should be able to create a space that provides access to means for civil interaction with the community outside of the school—programs of which can be integrated to school curriculum (i.e., journalism or entrepreneurial training).

Photo: The students during the agricultural skills ex-school session; provided by the school’s documentation.

Emerging phenomenon: entrepreneur
ial aspirations

Some students’ parents and teachers aspire their kids to be an entrepreneur upon graduation, be it as a full-time entrepreneur or part-time entrepreneur while serving as an Islamic preacher. Providing entrepreneurship training can be an avenue to influence motivational dynamics, the worldview and the life priorities of the students. The training can be incorporated into the existing school curriculum by collaborating with local entrepreneurs—practical skills and networks that can also help students preparing their future job.

Photo: The students of Grade 7 studying in the classroom.


Photo: Students of Grade 8 and 9 share an open space/terrace of the mosque because the classes’ infrastructure are not completed yet.

I have personally learned immeasurable worthwhile lessons from this immersion study. The experience has taught me deeply about what it takes to listen to the people and try to be in the others’ shoes. As a model of a rehabilitation center, not only should we learn from this community but also try to think about different ways to care more about those who have been ostracized and stigmatized by the local community and try to find their relevance in the world.

Author: Niwa R. Dwitama is a second year Master candidate at School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University and was awarded an AC4 Graduate Student Fellowship in 2018. With the fellowship, he traveled to North Sumatera and East Java of Indonesia, to conduct an immersion study on “Capturing the Understanding of Peace and Tolerance in two religious schools.” His fieldwork applies some elements of Reality Check Approach (RCA) method.

Photos: All photos are taken and provided by author unless noted otherwise.

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