My brave new world

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Fleeing war and conflict, a refugee's experience of school can be crucial in helping them adjust. Hannah Frankel reports
Fleeing war and conflict, a refugee's experience of school can be crucial in helping them adjust. Hannah Frankel reports

It is hard enough to fit into a new school at the best of times. But what if you don't speak the language, have no friends, have never attended school before and are worried about your family at home in a war-torn country?

That was the situation Kinsi Mohamed, now 27, faced when she fled her native Somalia in 1994. Her first experience of school was as a Year 8 pupil in east London. It was a frightening environment for Kinsi, who received little support from staff or the school.

Little has changed for many of the 100,000 refugee and asylum seeking children in British schools today. Experiences of war and flight often leave pupils with behavioural problems, according to a report published last month by the Refugee Council, but teachers are rarely trained to deal with them. It also found that many refugee children are bullied because their families cannot afford uniforms or extra activities.

Melvio Vondo, a Year 10 pupil at Chace Community School in Enfield, Middlesex, can attest to that. Half her family were killed during the fighting in her native Congo, including - she presumes - her mother and two brothers. "I'm still grieving," says Melvio, 15. "I still don't know for sure that my family are dead, but in the end you have to draw your own conclusions."

She came to the UK with her father when she was just seven, but by that age she had already witnessed the full horror of war. "I'd walk past people lined up on their knees as the soldiers shot them one by one. Sometimes you couldn't see the road for all the dead bodies and blood. The memories still haunt me. I'm afraid to sleep. When I do, I wake up crying."

But the ordeal didn't stop when she left the Congo. She had to wait six months before a primary school was found for her. Then, with little English and no friends, she was an easy target for bullies. "School was terrifying at first. I felt so alone." But things did get better. Her teacher organised an after-school French club at her primary, where Melvio could help other pupils and make friends. She joined a choir at Chace and received support from a sixth form peer mentor. She also sees a psychologist.

"I've found friends here," she says, "and the teachers are understanding. I don't sleep much at night, but if I doze off during class, the teacher gently wakes me up instead of having a go at me. I feel I belong. I fit in."

Refugee Week, which starts on Monday, aims to help pupils like Melvio. Through a nationwide programme of cultural and educational events, it hopes to celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK and foster a better understanding between different communities.

But there are pockets of excellence already. Kinsi's four young children are being given a promising start thanks, in part, to Salusbury World (Working on Refugees Learning and Development), the first refugee centre set up within a primary school, Salusbury Primary School in Brent, north London.

It aims to cater for the distinct needs of its refugee community, who typically make up 13 to 15 per cent of the school's 650 pupils - more than double the average in the capital as a whole.

Since 1999 it has helped deal with the acute needs of refugees in the school. The demographic may have changed, but the unit's focus has remained largely the same: helping pupils settle in and thrive, providing holiday and after-school clubs and, crucially, advice and advocacy to parents.

"We take a holistic approach to the pupil's education," says Sarah Reynolds, the project manager who heads the team of advisors, youth workers and artists.

"You can't separate the family from a pupil's ability to reach their potential. As with all children, you have to look at the whole family context."

Parents can attend coffee mornings at the centre once a week, plus make private appointments if they need help or advice about anything from their children's education to tax credits, housing or personal safety. It also provides after school and homework clubs, subsidised holiday activities and training for staff at Salusbury and beyond.

"I don't know what I would have done without it," says Kinsi. "They've helped me get a passport and find a solicitor. Children need somewhere to go and play if their parents are working or have no money, but it's much more than child care. I've made friends and learnt how to help my children do their homework."

Elaine Clarke, the headteacher, says Salusbury World has given many mothers the confidence to work part-time at the school. "It boosts their self-esteem and it's good for their children to see that their parents are part of the school," she says.

The school, the centre and other organisations within the school neatly dovetail one another. Traumatised or challenging pupils are directed to the school's in-house counselling service, Place2Be, or they may get the school's special needs co-ordinator involved.

The success of the school's refugee package hinges on this close-knit interaction between agencies, adds Elaine, who, together with the chair of governors, is a trustee of Salusbury World.

The centre has strong links with local secondaries, but it is harder to maintain sustained parental involvement at larger schools. A quarter of the 1,000 pupils at South Camden Community School in north London come from asylum seeking or refugee families, many of whom have had little if any previous education.

"We see the conflicts around the world on the news and then we see the influx at the school," says Lucy Braggins, the school's refugee co-ordinator. "Their disrupted education may mean that they are not really literate in their mother tongue, which makes it hard for them to get to grips with the nuts and bolts of English. Everything can be alien to them - from sitting in a classroom to putting hands up."

Pupils may be struggling to concentrate on their education while having to deal with other traumatic events, from bereavement and lost family members to the uncertainty of asylum seeker status, poor housing and isolation.

"Being worried about parents is a huge barrier to learning," says Lucy. "They may have experienced trauma in their home country or on their journey to the UK, but the trauma doesn't end here."

New arrivals at South Camden are allocated an induction mentor on arrival, plus a buddy who speaks their own language who gives them a tour of the school, and a welcome pack in their own language. It also has part-time Somali, Bengali, Afghan and Congolese link workers who support pupils, act as translators and provide information and training for staff.

However, not all schools have the funding or the experience to offer such support. A confusing, patchy and protracted admissions system leaves many pupils waiting for a school place for months, says Jill Rutter from the migration, equalities and citizenship team at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London.

"When they do get a place, English language support is totally inadequate. They get little or no class support and, as a result, can leave school with few qualifications."

But schools can do a lot to help, even within the constraints of an imperfect system. Often the simplest measures are also the most effective. "Schools that create a welcoming ethos help set these pupils on the right track," Jill says. "Together with good language support, it's one of the most important things they can do."


Salusbury World and Comic Relief are releasing a Shared Futures DVD on June 17 that aims to spread best practice and provide teacher training. Visit for details


- Make pupils feel welcome at their interview and induction: provide a translator; pair them with a buddy; and designate a member of staff to monitor their progress.

- Pass critical information to relevant staff before the pupil starts school.

- Ensure parents are aware of financial support such as free school meals.

- Don't solely rely on translated letters to parents. Regular, personal contact is the key.

- Involve parents in extra-curricular activities to raise cultural understanding.

- Challenge popular myths by raising refugee issues in class and assemblies.

- Provide teacher training.

- Offer free after-school activities that will help pupils develop friendships, skills, self-esteem and a sense of belonging.

- Provide opportunities (including regular coffee mornings) for parents to develop informal support networks.

- Provide targeted support for refugee families facing transition.


Abdi Haaji was 10 years old when he fled his native Somalia to join his 18-year-old sister in the UK.

"It was too dangerous for me to stay there," says Abdi, now a 17-year-old at South Camden School in north London. "I feared for my life. Sometimes it was too dangerous to leave the house for weeks at a time."

Abdi's father was killed during the fighting. His mother managed to cross the border to Ethiopia, while he travelled as an unaccompanied minor to live with his sister in Vauxhall, south London.

"It was very scary," he adds. "I'd never been to school in Somalia and I couldn't speak English.

"I wanted to learn but I found it difficult and frustrating. I thought the other pupils were talking about me, and I got into lots of fights."

Abdi's foot had been badly damaged by a landmine but he did not want to have an operation without his mother. However, she was denied access to the UK because his sister was not earning.

Worried about his mother in Ethiopia, Abdi found it hard to concentrate. But South Camden provided a haven from his troubles. Teachers from the school's ethnic minority achievement unit met Abdi's sister. They talked to Abdi about his absent mother and helped organise a reunion two years ago in Djibouti.

"The teachers have really helped me," Abdi says. "Now I want to study medicine."


Peer mentoring

Fitzalan High School in Cardiff set up a mentoring project two years ago to support its refugee and asylum seeking pupils.

The 20-minute mentoring sessions took place once a week during assembly for six months. It is open to all sixth formers and pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9, but it targets EAL pupils who have been identified by their year tutor as under-achieving, challenging or particularly shy. Where possible, 20 mentors are matched with 20 mentees from the same background and sex.

"The younger pupils valued the time spent with these older role models, while the sixth formers felt good about helping and volunteering," says Asha Ali, a science teacher and team leader of the raising ethnic minority achievement programme at Fitzalan.

"Even when their backgrounds were different, it fostered inclusion and cross cultural understanding.

"They could chat one-to-one with someone close in age who had been through the system. Peer mentoring allows younger pupils to talk more freely than they would with a teacher."

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