Getting to know our immigrant ancestors

20th June 2003 at 01:00
Refugee Week is an excellent opportunity to explore the facts, says Reva Klein.

Refugee Week kicked off on Monday with findings of an opinion poll showing that most young people have a negative and inaccurate perception of asylum-seekers. Nearly a quarter of the 289 15 to 24-year-olds questioned think that Britain should not take in refugees fleeing war or persecution and almost half believe that the vast majority of asylum-seekers are bogus.

Fifty-eight per cent feel that asylum-seekers don't make a positive contribution to the UK.

These findings aren't surprising when the current climate distorts the issues and misrepresents the people coming here seeking asylum. How should young people know that refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants contribute the equivalent of pound;2.5bn a year to this country, or that close to half are found to have legitimate claims to remain here? How is anyone to know the facts about who these people are, why they take such pains to get here and what they do once they are here when they are caricatured as opportunist layabouts in the press and treated as a political hot potato in Westminster?

The world was a different place when, in 1951, the rights of people to seek refuge from war, famine and oppression became enshrined in international law under the United Nations Convention on Refugees. Traumatised and guilt-ridden by the Nazi genocide and the displacement of millions of people caused by the war, a spirit of humanitarianism took hold. Today, the spirit is best defined as protectionism and paranoia. And you don't need to read Mori polls to tell you that the young are as susceptible as their parents. Witness the phenomenon of "bogus" as a playground cuss as well as the increase in the numbers of Islamophobic insults and attacks in schools, according to Amnesty International and the Islamic Human Rights Commission, among others.

Which is why Refugee Week, an annual event, offers a perfect opportunity for discussion, debate and analysis of the myths and realities of asylum.

The curriculum offers plenty of opportunities outside the one week a year for delving into the subject. Through education for citizenship and personal, social and health education, teachers have a responsibility to nurture a respect for others and an acceptance and understanding of people from other backgrounds. Portraying a complex issue like asylum to young children in the current climate of vilification is not easy, but it is do-able and vitally important.

One pilot project has been organised by the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE). Called Journeys, it examines the roots of Britons today.

It looks at the long history of immigration to this country, often by refugees and what are derisively known as economic migrants.

Children are asked to research their own family trees and bring them in to discuss. For the Year 6 pupils at Rosh Pinah, a Jewish primary in Edgware where JCORE carried out the pilot, the project was revelatory. One boy said: "Nearly all of us discovered that our families had been refugees.

When we did our research, we heard stories from our relatives that we'd never heard before."

Exploring their own family backgrounds lays the foundations for empathy.

Even in schools where children come from less uprooted backgrounds, they will be able to find migration somewhere down the line and it is then that the important questions get asked: why would you leave your friends and home? What is it like to start your life in a new country with a different language, where everything seems strange? What is it like to feel as if people don't like you because you are different?

Supported by resources including a video from the Refugee Council on why people become refugees, as well as poems, stories and books, the effect is one of illumination and understanding. It lends itself to good, solid cross-curricular work too: once you start looking at its application, it has endless possibilities, from art, history and geography to literacy hour.

But perhaps more importantly, Journeys and other projects like it are vital for countering stereotypes and engendering understanding of the dispossessed and displaced people in our midst.

Irrespective of what the Home Office does to keep further "waves" of asylum seekers from ever reaching our shores, children should be helped to see beyond the rhetoric and even to see the connections between their own family histories and those from recently arrived communities.

Under a government that purports to be committed to community cohesion and in an education system that is inspecting schools on race equality and multicultural understanding, teaching refugee issues should be a priority for all schools.

Contact for more information about the Journeys project

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