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Refugees offered a voice in the media

Fawsia Elmi is optimistic as she begins the search for a media job . A former diplomat from Somalia, she is one of the first students to graduate from On Air, an innovative media training project for refugees and asylum-seekers being piloted in West London.

Nineteen students from different conflict areas (including Nigeria and former Yugoslavia) have just graduated from the course, run by Ealing Tertiary College and Thames Valley University. "We are like a bridge now between the media and these closed societies," says Fawsia.

On Air is a European-funded project organised by a consortium of local government, educational and voluntary organisations. The Ealing course is one of three parallel ones developed for the project.

The second course, which began in September at West Thames College in Isleworth, includes three hours a week of ESOL (English for Speakers of other Languages) support. For the third course, set up by the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the training is being done by the West London Iranian Association and the West London Media Services Trust.

Topics covered include audio and video production, computing and business skills. Students qualify in units towards City and Guilds, GNVQs, or, for those studying at Thames Valley University, units towards a degree.

"They have a respect for education, a hunger for knowledge," said Claudette Purville, course leader at West Thames College. The idea for the project came from the co-ordinator, Claire Pollack, a film producer who was teaching video production in West London.

Her students included several refugees and asylum-seekers, many well-qualified. "They had something to say and those voices weren't being heard in the mainstream media," she said. There was scope to organise training which would use their skills and build on their professional backgrounds, she believed, while addressing their special needs as refugees.

Claire Pollack worked through the London borough of Ealing to bid for money from Europe's Horizon funding for innovative training and job creation schemes. "Working from within the structure of the local authority was very helpful in getting the funding," she said. "It gave us some substance for our application. "

The project is part of a Europe-wide network of training schemes for refugees or migrants, which is being led by the Dutch media training organisation, STOA. Ireland and Greece are also working with refugees, and the other partners (Holland, Sweden and Germany) with ethnic minorities. The six partners hold regular meetings where ideas can be exchanged Links with media organisations are central to the project, and response from the industry has been very positive. "Channel 4 recognises the importance of this project," said Mike Miller, one of Channel 4's commissioning editors. He has set up a work experience placement for one of the new graduates, Emil Yankov, at On Line Magic, the company developing Channel 4's web site.

There is also strong support from the BBC. Europe Singh, adult education project leader at BBC Education, is on the advisory panel, and a producer from the World Service worked with students on the Ealing course to produce a radio feature.

Other companies which have offered placements include BSkyB and record label Rough Trade. As a pilot, the project is being funded for three years, until the end of 1997, and evaluation is currently under way. Gordon Keenan, principal European officer with the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, emphasises the importance of building on what has been learned.

"One element where we feel the project has been a bit weak, on our side, is the language. Next year we're hoping to involve our education department to offer ESOL support."

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