Squaring up to the storm
Refugees in this country are given a hard time. The implication, too often, is that they are here to scrounge or to take "our" jobs. The reality is invariably very different.
"You don't come because you want to but because you have to," explains one of the young refugees and asylum seekers in the video Square Fish from the charity Children of the Storm. And fate, having landed them on these shores, usually finds they are willing to work hard, learn the language and get an education - and a job. Unfortunately, we often make things very difficult for them.
Children of the Storm is a charity which helps young refugees, and this video and accompanying booklet are designed as an introduction to the UK and to raise awareness among people working with refugees and asylum seekers.
It could also be used in schools to encourage understanding of what being a refugee is all about. It is interesting that many of the young people in the video don't like the term "refugee", finding it a label that depersonalises them: "People don't see you as a person, they see you as a refugee."
Together with a general view of refugees' circumstances, the video includes a practical section on education, money, counselling, social services and multiculturalism - it is emphasised that refugees have a right to express themselves and be proud of their native culture.
Most of the talking is done by the refugees themselves who go to London schools and colleges and came originally from such places as Bosnia, Kosovo and Eritrea. They describe the isolation and sense of unreality that comes from finding themselves in a country which is so different from their own. How much so is expressed by Rajmonda Merovci's first encounter with fish fingers, an incident that gives the video its title. She assumed they were chips and is incredulous that they are fish.
Not knowing the language makes life particularly difficult. Faton Hoxha arrived from Kosovo not speaking a word of English. He had a relative's telephone number but no idea how to use public phones. He describes standing for 30 minutes at a British port paralysed by his incomprehension.
All the refugees were overwhelmed by supermarkets and their ignorance of the value of British money. They often have to survive on very little: pound;17 a week in one case, and live in very poor accommodation. School, too, can be frustrating because, due to their language difficulties, they are placed in ability groups less advanced than their education and intelligence warrants.
The accompanying booklet contains information on many aspects of British life. Unfortunately, occasionally it is naive. The chapter on housing, for example, gives little notion of the nightmare, especially for those aged over 18, that finding a home can be. Homelessness is a real possibility for many unaccompanied refugees. And in the chapter on doctors and dentists, nothing is said about the difficulty of finding an interpreter if you can't speak English.
But the pack is an important addition to the resources of schools where refugees or asylum seekers are pupils. Apart from helping young refugees to understand that they are not alone and presenting them with useful advice, it would be helpful in countering prejudice in other pupils.
s The pack is free but send a self-addressed A4 envelope with pound;1.50 stamps to Children of the Storm,61 Oak Grove, London NW2 3LS.Tel: 0181-450 0223