Friends without frontiers

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Integration of asylum seekers in Glasgow is being supported through art projects, writes James Allen

Asylum seekers started arriving in Glasgow in April 2000 as part of the Home Office's distribution plan. Now there are more than 1,700 children from asylum seeking families in 26 primary and seven secondary schools across the city.

Over the past three years, the city council has supported a range of arts events to help the children overcome the obstacles faced in settling into the community. "The purpose is to aid and enhance integration," says Les McLean, the city's adviser in race equality.

"They can get involved whatever their level of English and that is not true for all parts of the curriculum. It enables them to excel quickly and one of the surest ways to integrate is to excel."

East Glasgow Youth Theatre has helped to win over people who would not usually be in contact with these children through its production of Breathing the Same Air, which was performed at the Tron Theatre in March.

Eight months ago, the 13- to 17-year-olds in the theatre's senior performing group had never met any refugees but they wanted to involve some in a production. Five young asylum seekers were selected to work with the company and in six weeks they had helped to create a play about young people growing up in Glasgow.

"We didn't want it to be about them and us," says the company's co-ordinator, Wendy Niblock, who is delighted with what was achieved. "The final piece could have been about any young person growing up in any city anywhere; what their thoughts were, their hopes for the future."

The collaboration changed some of the theatre members' negative attitudes about asylum seekers. They learnt about other cultures and to be more accepting of people who had moved out of necessity rather than choice.

The project was so successful that the asylum seekers involved have been invited to become members of the company.

Being "one of us" also featured strongly in the Going Global film project.

The idea was to get asylum seekers' children and local children to work together on an animation project to articulate their thoughts about race and culture.

Three films were produced by pupils from All Saints' Secondary, Castlemilk High and St Paul's Primary in association with the Glasgow Film Theatre and film company D Fie Foe. The combined video is provocative and moving, covering issues of cultural diversity, personal identity and the idea of home. Like the recent mental health campaign, "See me, not my label" is the message.

Maria Walker, education co-ordinator for the Glasgow Asylum Seekers Support Project, was involved in making a Going Global education pack from the venture. She has found asylum seekers to be very enthusiastic about getting involved in curricular and extra-curricular activities.

"They are very motivated to be educated," she says. "Often they come from well educated families; sometimes they come from countries where they have been barred from education. They don't take it for granted."

Welcoming asylum seekers into the city's art spaces was the idea behind outreach workshops linked to the Gallery of Modern Art's exhibition on the theme of human rights, Sanctuary. The workshops were targeted at asylum seekers only but had no political agenda. Glasgow-based artists encouraged the children to produce works using varous contemporary art techniques.

The pieces now on display refer to memories and aspirations. The eight Afghani children attending the Makhbul Youth Group run by Azmina Scott-Ali produced paintings, storyboards and treasure boxes that have been recorded on transparencies and DVD.

Upstairs is a brightly painted cardboard landscape of tower blocks in Balornock, which was made by 30 children at a drop-in centre at Tron St Mary's Church. Flags on the roofs show how much the children want to be recognised as part of the community.

Being accepted is something that links the work in all the projects. "They want to fit in," says Ms Walker. "They don't want to be asylum seekers.

They want to be ordinary children again."

Going Global education pack, pound;25, from Glasgow Film Theatre, tel 0141 332 6535; e-mail'Sanctuary', Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until September 28

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