Refuge in reality

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Lucy Russell looks at a teaching pack that can increase students' understanding of those who come to Britain as refugees or asylum-seekers

The Refuge Project Teacher's Resource Pack. The Aegis Trust, DVD or video pack normally pound;150. * During October, TES readers can buy the DVD version of the pack for pound;100 (plus pp). Quote "TES Teacher" when ordering Tel: 01623 836627

A history teacher with a commitment to bringing citizenship into her subject recently told me about her concerns over students' ideas about refugees. Attitudes to immigration among her school's students could be very negative, she admitted. "When you talk to students about their attitudes they never talk about why refugees may have had to leave their countries; it's always 'they're getting this, they're getting that'." She had spoken to some Year 9 students that morning after hearing them using "dirty Slovak" and "dirty Kosovan" as insults in the playground.

I have seen this sort of thing often enough myself, and so had another teacher I spoke to that week: "In this area we have a lot of immigrants and we do have problems. Students tend to be prejudiced by views expressed at home", many of which ideas are unfounded. It is not easy for teachers to successfully challenge students' perceptions. As these teachers commented, local and national press influence opinion and "sometimes you just feel you are fighting a losing battle". The Refuge Project pack, produced by the Aegis Trust, provides an alternative and more in-depth presentation of the experience of refugees.

The pack challenges students' preconceptions through the personal stories of individual refugees and asylum-seekers. The resource is based on Nottinghamshire's Refuge Project, in which students at schools in the county had the opportunity to meet and learn about refugees and asylum-seekers. What began as a community and citizenship programme has resulted in a resource which can be used by teachers across the curriculum, and not least in history. On the DVD (or video) that is part of the pack, some of the students give their reactions to the life histories of the refugees they met and tell what they have learned from the experience. This offers all students the opportunity to explore the lives of refugees.

The moving personal testimonies of five individuals are included on the DVD: Lisa Vincent left Germany in 1939; Benjamin Vergara-Carvallo left Chile in 1976; Nadia Smailagic left Bosnia in 1994; David Luwum left Uganda in 1989; and Jetmir Gjeta left Kosovo in 1999. In their personal profiles (which each run for three minutes) their experiences are set against the backdrop of the global conflicts which led them to seek refuge in Britain.

These and others, such as that of Susanna Hrustic, who is pictured, can be sampled on the Refuge Project website.

This is an approach that many history teachers use to teach about the Holocaust, the aim being to get beyond the statistics (and newspaper headlines) and show students that refugees are real people. Do we talk enough about empathy in history these days? This is the aim here: how would you feel? How would you cope? How would you like to be welcomed to Britain?

As well as the personal testimonies of refugees, there is an introductory film, five thematic classroom films and interviews with refugee experts. These short films - none lasting longer than 11 minutes - are excellent for supporting discussion.

Teachers can use this comprehensive pack to plan their own citizenship lessons around the short films and to support teaching on 20th-century history, or they can use individual units. The pack contains schemes of work, lesson plans and photocopiable worksheets, as well as informative documents, maps and profiles of nine refugees and asylum-seekers, including the five that feature on the DVD. These are colourful and well set out, and provide each refugee's personal history, the historical background of the country and crisis, and the role of the international community. This is really useful material for history teachers intent on bringing citizenship into their subject.

= Lucy Russell is researching a PhD in teaching the Holocaust in history: policy and classroom perspectives, at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and has been talking to teachers as part of this research Aegis Trust:


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