Easing the tension

20th May 2005 at 01:00
A programme in Peterborough is helping children understand the truth about asylum seekers. Sarah Farley reports

At first sight, the class at Middleton Primary School, in Peterborough, may not seem particularly multicultural, but a quick survey shows that a group of 45 children and adults comes from 17 countries and speaks 14 different languages. Some newcomers are more eagerly welcomed than others, however, and in Peterborough, which is an official dispersal centre for asylum-seekers, there has been tension.

Side by Side, a programme developed by Positive Youth Action, a department of Peterborough Youth Service, aims to promote a better understanding between school-age children, asylum-seekers and their communities.

Delivered as three workshops based on art, storytelling and drama, the two and a half hour session starts with a candid discussion about what the 10 and 11-year-olds think about asylum-seekers. Among the more sympathetic answers are one or two comments that they have heard they are troublemakers or that they think they own the place. Next comes some explanation of status: an asylum-seeker is fleeing from persecution in another country, is looking for safety and has asked permission to stay in Britain. If they are granted permission, they become a refugee and have a right to stay as long as necessary. An illegal immigrant has been refused permission to stay, but has not returned to their country.

Some fun with football scarves brings home the point that just because someone is wearing a scarf for, say, Arsenal or Chelsea, it does not mean that you can tell what that person is like. Caroline Dolby, from Positive Youth Action, leads the programme today and takes the storytelling workshop where the group watches a video featuring three children who are either asylum-seekers or refugees. In a "circle time" exercise, the children discuss what it would be like to live in a war-torn country. Variations on "horrible" and "scary" are the most frequent suggestions, and moving the talk on to how it would feel to live as a refugee in a foreign country produces similar responses.

The group seem to be sympathetic to the plight of the asylum-seekers in Peterborough, but Sarah Dudley, PSHE co-ordinator at Middleton School, is not convinced the children are really bringing to the discussion comments they have heard outside the school. "There are quite a few asylum-seekers being housed in empty housing on the estate round here and tensions have been running high, especially as the British National Party have been canvassing and have support in the area. They talk to children in roads near the school," she says.

Caroline encourages the children to discuss some of the issues. "What is it that worries people about asylum-seekers?" she asks. One boy says people don't like the way they hang around in gangs. "Why do you think they do that?" she asks, and brings them round to suggesting it might be because they can't speak English and are feeling nervous in a foreign country, so they meet up together.

"They all look scruffy and they don't work, they just scrounge off us," are other reported comments. However, the pupils learn from the video that an asylum-seeker has to live off pound;40 a week and is not allowed to work until they are accepted as a legal refugee.

In the art workshop, Denham Hughes, who is co-ordinator for Positive Youth Action, discusses with his group what it means to welcome someone. "We can smile - everyone responds to a friendly smile, don't they? Best not to rush up and hug them as they might be nervous of physical contact. Or we can draw a picture for them to make them feel happy," he suggests.

The children set about producing large postcard-sized happy pictures of rainbows, smiley faces, suns shining and, in one boy's offering, swooping birds representing freedom. The cards are laminated and fixed together to form a giant poster, which will be displayed at the entrance of the school to provide a welcome note.

Leading the drama workshop, Richard Harris, from Doyl'y Arts, evokes an atmosphere of fear, weariness and cold, taking the children on a journey from a dangerous homeland. They imagine leaving alone and hurriedly, taking only essential possessions, travelling in a leaky boat and in the back of a freezing, dark truck. How do they feel when they arrive? "Side by Side works because it is interactive and non-confrontational, and has more impact than ordinary PSHE lessons," says Sarah. "It makes the children think about how others might really feel."

The finale brings together the issues that have been discussed and the children receive a fridge magnet with key words and images. Denham reminds them of the "stranger danger" message. "It's not about telling them to befriend every asylum-seeker or refugee. One boy here summed it up when I heard him talking to his friend and say he'd seen some asylum-seekers near his home, then he corrected himself and said, 'Only I'm not sure if they were asylum-seekers. You can't tell just by looking.'"

* For more information about Side by Side contact Caroline Dolby Tel: 01733 746048

Email: caroline.dolby@peterborough.gov.uk

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