School Communities and Belonging: No, Where Are You Really From? | Harbord & Khan | 5 Min Read

November 17, 2022

If you have been asked ‘No where are you really from?’ recently, it is probably still rankling. At times, your struggle to belong is raised by someone else. It is an issue faced not only by many young people but also adults. Other factors complicate the issue further. One such example is the phenomenon of ‘cognitive immobility,’ which is being mentally trapped in a place or home you left behind because of memories, nostalgia, and experiences. As a result, you can’t truly find a new home in a new place, and so the ‘longing’ for belonging takes on a strange twist. This cognitive immobility not only affects international students but also affects any students who have to move for economic or social reasons.

The Institute for Economics and Peace predicted that by 2050, 1.2 billion people will have been forced to leave their homes as a result of the climate crisis. Amongst initiatives trying to support displaced people is the ‘Tales of a City Tours’ project. Founded by Emily Stevenson in Leeds, UK, this aims to help forcibly displaced people connect with tourists and local residents. The guided city tours were led by refugees and asylum seekers, whom Stevenson invited to identify areas of the city and personal stories connected to these places. The project gave the participants an opportunity to discuss challenges they faced in integrating and connecting with the city as well as connecting with both diverse and similar communities. 

The ‘Tales of City Tours’ shows how people can connect with their cities and offers a blueprint for schools.

Questions you can ask yourself and your students:

  • How can you develop a curriculum to connect your students to their cities and landmarks as well as create a greater sense of school community? What ideas do your students have?
  • What can you do in your school? What local places can you take your students to? What names can they give to landmarks along the way? Can they map your school and give places their own names? Can these places be named in their mother tongues? 
  • Did your city have older names? Who were the original inhabitants of your city? Does your area retain indigenous names and landmarks?

In our ethically driven approach to curriculum, we take on projects that can support positive change and have a positive impact. One example related to the issue of belonging was the resources we developed for a summer school program for disadvantaged/marginalized students in Texas. The purpose was primarily to support their problem-solving and literacy skills. Many of these young people were disconnected from their city. We realized that we could promote a sense of belonging in these students by focusing their learning on the local river running through their state. As this was integral to the identity of the local community, we created a learning journey inspired by places of significance along the river. Our storytelling was influenced by the traditions of the original displaced indigenous inhabitants. 

This sense of community and home also can be created in different ways and on different scales. Thoughtful changes in a living space, even a temporary one, can impact the well-being of the people living there. The Sahara program, described in our interview below is one example of this.

Amir Berbic is the Dean at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar. In 1993, his family had to leave former Yugoslavia and was living in a refugee camp in Denmark. We asked him to tell us a little bit about how and why his father created the Sahara program in a refugee camp where not only identity, perspective, and communication are displaced but also the people living and surviving there are vulnerable: 

Ismet Berbic, my father, designed the identity for Sahara as a way of giving form to our own identifying image. He also felt strongly about acting as a designer in any situation, including the extreme circumstances in which we found ourselves at that time. He urged that refugees name the camp and be identified by name instead of a registration number assigned to them by the Danish Refugee Council. He created a sign for each tent that listed its residents by name. The sign also featured an icon that referenced the profession of one of the tent’s residents. It was an effort to be identified as more than just refugees and shift the attention from the hard circumstances of war that led us into exile towards some seeming normalcy, such as having a school or a football team. 

[Excerpt from Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools – Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2. “ISBN: 9781913808686”. Apple Books]

The importance of belonging for our students is vital for their social and emotional well-being and belonging to the school community is paramount. In his book, Flow, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi says, in Latin “being alive” was ”inter hominem esse,” which literally meant ‘“to be among men.” He comments that the severest punishment for a Roman citizen was that, “no matter how luxurious his country estate, if banished from the company of his peers the urban Roman became an invisible man.” As humans, belonging is one of our fundamental needs. Not being acknowledged and understood are very powerful ways of making people feel invisible. By intentionally connecting our students to their learning environments and spaces in meaningful ways, we may be able to foster a sense of belonging in our school communities. 


Burrai, E., & Buda, D.-M. (2022, June 16). How refugees leading city walking tours help increase their sense of belonging – new research. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from

Ezenwa, O. E. (2022, July 2). ‘Cognitive immobility’? when you’re mentally trapped in a place from your past. Neuroscience News. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from

Harbord, M. J., & Khan, S. R. (2020). INTERDISCIPLINARY THINKING FOR SCHOOLS: Ethical dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3. JOHN CATT EDUCATIONAL LTD.Zurich. (2019, September). There could be 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. Zurich. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Harbord & Khan for Intrepid Ed News.

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website:

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