Lessons in respect for society's diversity

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Sumaya Muhammad is a star of the silver screen. The third year Holy Rood pupil is in the cast of Gas Attack, which won an award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. The film documents a hypothetical anthrax attack on a community of asylum-seekers. It was filmed months before the murder of Firsat Dag in Glasgow.

Jill Parfrey, an English as an additional language teacher with City of Edinburgh Council, was delighted to attend the premi re of Gas Attack at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, with guests resplendent in their finery to salute the production. The question and answer session which followed was a challenge for Sumaya and her colleagues, not only in linguistic terms, but also in that her experience of Scotland has not exposed her to the antipathy portrayed in the film.

Refugees in Edinburgh have not been concentrated in particular areas in the way that has occurred in Glasgow. The 1,500 asylum-seekers accommodated in Sighthill have inevitably altered the social equilibrium of the area, with radical consequences for educational and medical services.

Nobody should point the finger at Glasgow or the people of Sighthill. Sir Roy Cameron, Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police, has revealed that his force deals with more than 500 racial incidents a year. This is a national issue, with no room for complacency.

Ms Parfrey has worked in Holy Rood for seven years, supporting young people from Italy, Poland, Iraq, Sudan and other nationalities. Her style is quiet and self-effacing, as she unceremoniously negotiates with anxious teachers over the integration of pupils whose command of English is often severely restricted.

She was involved in receiving the Bosnian families who found refuge in East Lothian in the mid-Nineties. She speaks with experience when she tells of children terrified by the sound of aeroplanes, even when they are emanating from a computer game, and of people cowering in terror as aircraft pass overhead.

Ms Parfrey reassures teachers that young people who have been educated in their own language will soon assimilate the content of lessons, even if they cannot immediately articulate or describe what they have learnt. The trauma of their previous lives is dealt with quietly and sensitively, but Ms Parfrey's experience suggests that most young people become too preoccupied with the problems presented by their homework to dwell on the past.

Sumaya became our resident Arabic translator when Salim arrived and his timetable required explanation. She was also able to explain to her own family the induction process for younger sister, Duha, who has now joined Holy Rood.

Sumaya and Duha have experienced little racism and, while they quickly assert their Iraqi nationality, they also declare their allegiance to Scotland in any sporting encounter with other nations. They are puzzled by the curiosity of their peers as they do not see themselves as exceptional in any way. They return to a normal family in a settled situation in the evening.

However, Ms Parfrey points out that more than 4,000 unaccompanied refugee children arrive in Britain each year and their conditions can be much less promising and secure.

Education is vital for all children, but even more critically important for those whose previous lives have been blighted by war, famine or political oppression. It is unthinkable that such victims of tyranny and prejudice should encounter racial attacks and verbal abuse in our affluent and sophisticated society.

Gas Attack is a warning of what could result if prejudice and racism are unleashed. Sumaya and her sister are a beacon of hope that the education which has made our society civilised can be the instrument by which refugees and immigrants learn to function in their adopted home, and the process which equips our own young to welcome and respect the diversity they bring.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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