Right back where we started from

10th November 2000 at 00:00
The immigrant's story is one from which we can all learn, writes Christina Zaba

Let's start at the very beginning: the Origins education pack sprang from the work of the late Geraldine Edwards (above), whose book, Origins: Personal Stories of Crossing the Seas to Britain, won the Raymond Williams Community Publishing Prize for 1999. It comprises 45 illustrated stories and poems, such as Shawn Naphtali Sobers's 'Silent Witness' (top)

What are the stories we carry in our heads; the stories that tell us who we are? No matter how unusual, we tend to take them for granted. Like our skin, they are part of us.

So it's easy to assume that they won't be interesting to anyone else. But they often are, especially if the tale takes in dislocation, exile, arrival - the experience of migration shared by so many British families. At a time when the question of national identity and belonging is arousing so much controversy, the classroom is an important starting point for an exploration of personal histories and their wider meanings. But where to begin?

The Origins education pack is a new resource based on Geraldine Edwards's book, Origins: personal stories of crossing the seas to Britain (1998). After settling in Bristol, Geraldine became aware of the many stories of migration and movement, adapting and adopting, surrounding her new home. Bristol is a city which speaks of arrivals and departures; and Geraldine gave it a voice.

I met Geraldine at the beginning of the project, when she asked for my help in collecting stories from Bristol's Polish community, particularly its older members. My parents were Polish emigres and, like many of my friends, I was used to belonging to an "alien" cultural world. The 250,000 Poles who remained in Britain after the Second World War passed on their language, culture and history with a passion that left no room for dissent. We learnt a history that was never mentioned in school, and came to understand that our roots lay in a country that barely featured in the national consciousness of our host island. So Geraldine's interest was both unfamiliar and liberating.

Rather than speaking on behalf of newcomers to Britain, she let them speak for themselves. With funding from Bristol city council, South-West Arts and the Arts Council, Geraldine set up workshops and meetings, commissioned photography, and listened and encouraged, patiently recording the unheard voices around her: of Asian mothers, Holocaust survivors, war exiles, Chileans, West Indians, the elderly, the children of migrants. It was an extraordinary experience, and the result, an illustrated collection of 45 stories and poems, is startling in its immediacy, honesty and narrative power. Origins won the Raymond Williams Community Publishing Prize for 1999. Tragically, Geraldine wasn't there to collect the award; she had died of breast cancer some months earlier, leaving a husband and young son.

But funding was already in place for a schools education pack, and others carried the project forward. Black Pyramid Films, based in the St Paul's district of Bristol, produced five short films to amplify and explore stories in the boo; and Anne Malandine and the Origins management committee worked with Nigel Youngman, an English teacher at St George community school, to create a resource pack covering topics from family myth and photo-media to characterisation and symbolism, all suitable for students studying GCSE English and media studies as well as for key stage 3 pupils and sixth-formers.

The pack consists of the Origins book, a 100-page teacher's handbook, a 100-page photocopiable resource book, a set of photographic stills and the five films (which will be shown on Channel 4 Learning next summer). It is a practical, adaptable and, perhaps most importantly, positive take on the topic of immigration.

"Multiculturalism is a really difficult issue to deal with, especially in schools that aren't especially racially mixed," says Rob Mitchell, producer of the Origins films. "Origins works because it's not about racism and difference, but about really heroic achievements - and what it means to be here. It's something we're all a part of. The stories are real; they're straight from the oral tradition. All the project does is translate them into different media."

Dilesh Korya, director of Freedom, about a Vietnamese family, agrees. "As film-makers, we had to work with images, take the stories off the page and make them really interesting for kids to watch," he says. "The multimedia aspect is a key part of Origins; how stories can live in different ways, how you can use different media to tell your truth."

"We had to think creatively, because although the stories were about faraway places the budget meant we couldn't travel far," adds Ann-Marie McCormack, director of the film on Irish immigration. "My film has a positive outcome - I wanted to show kids that even if you go through hard times, it doesn't mean that your whole life will be disastrous."

Project manager Anne Malandine has no doubt that Origins has made a difference. "It's changed lives," she says. "Some contributors have gone on to do things they would never have thought of doing before. It's been empowering; and we think the education pack is a part of that."

Celebrating and affirming, Origins offers students ways of reflecting creatively on their own histories, whatever they are. "Immigration isn't about having a different coloured skin, it's about having a different story - heroic, funny, sad, whatever," says Rob Mitchell. "So instead of thinking, 'What's he doing here?', you end up thinking, 'I wonder how that person got here?' That's how Origins works."

Christina Zaba is a contributor to Origins and directed the film Survivors. The Origins education pack (boxed set of Origins stories, teacher's handbook, resources handbook, photo stills and video of the five films) is available, price pound;49.50 (plus pound;6.50 pamp;p), from Redcliffe Press, 81g Pembroke Road, Bristol BS8 3EA. Tel: 0117 973 7207; fax 0117 923 8991. Cheques should be made payable to the Origins Project. For orders of multiple copies of the Origins book there is a 35 per cent discount (pound;39 for 10 copies plus pound;6.50 pamp;p). Individual copies of the Origins book are available for pound;5.99 (pamp;p pound;1.50)

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