Traumatised but happy to be here

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Asylum-seeker children from all over the world are thriving in Glasgow, picking up the language and making new friends, writes Douglas Blane

The playground seems at first sight a formless melee of boys running in all directions. Then a pattern begins to emerge. Three simultaneous and overlapping games of football are in progress and the action is fast and skilful.

It is also multicoloured, the faces of the youngsters reflecting the wide variety of nationalities at Ibrox Primary in Glasgow.

Around here it's feet that matter - not faces.

"If there are skirmishes it's not because I'm black and you're white," says Mags Coyle, team leader of the school's bilingual support staff. "It's because that was a penalty and you said it wasn't."

There are 2,000 children of asylum-seeker families in Glasgow schools, and Glasgow is the only authority in Scotland to have entered a contract with the Home Office to provide asylum seekers with support and housing. The city is now in discussion about negotiating an extension of the five-year contract with the Home Office, says Les McLean, adviser on racial equality.

Asylum seekers are in a sort of limbo, waiting for "leave to remain". They are not allowed to take employment, so extra resources are provided. Glasgow's contract with the Home Office lets it train 80 teachers in English as an additional language, and set up bilingual support bases in 26 primary and seven secondary schools.

"Many contracts in England are with private landlords, which means families have to find schools for their kids, which can take months. Because we've taken an integrated approach, we aim to get kids into school within two weeks of arriving," says Mr McLean.

Reports of racial incidents in schools have increased in the seven years the city has been monitoring them, he says, partly because of increased confidence among staff and pupils.

"They seem to have reached a plateau at around 400 a year; 80 per cent of these are name-calling, and a quarter involve asylum-seeker or refugee kids," he says. "We have little evidence of inter-ethnic tensions in schools."

Ibrox Primary is one of the schools that began welcoming asylum-seeker children four years ago when Glasgow agreed to house families awaiting acceptance of their refugee status. Pupils at the school now speak 17 different languages and come from all over the world - Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Rwanda, Congo, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

"Some of these kids have seen dreadful things," says Ms Coyle. "We have children who saw their families slaughtered. One boy was found in a pile of dead bodies with a big gash in his head because they thought they'd killed him. He was pulled out alive from beneath his dead father. He is thriving now but he was a very traumatised wee boy."

Glasgow City has provided training for teachers of children with terrible memories: "A psychologist came and worked with us in the bilingual base.

She showed us how to access children's feelings and deal with them. It was extremely useful. Very occasionally kids come to us that we just aren't able to work with, but they're a tiny minority."

Where once there were just a handful of bilingual children, Ibrox Primary now has 55 out of a total of 170, says headteacher Cheryl McFadyen, who has taught in the Middle East: "It has been a very positive experience for us.

The children have really contributed to the ethos of the school," she says.

There's no doubt that at times it's a challenge, and you have to be flexible. Some of the children have had a private education, others none at all. Some speak good English, others don't speak any.

"I might have been more apprehensive about that diversity if I hadn't already taught at a school with lots of different nationalities. I knew it could work.

"Twenty years ago in Jaffa we had Palestinian children sitting beside Jewish children and getting on fine. School was a unifying place, a place of reconciliation - and it's the same now in Glasgow. Kids leave all that baggage at the door if you let them."

Ms Coyle agrees that tensions or hostilities between countries do not seem to carry over to playground or classroom: "I used to teach at a school in Sighthill, where a lot of these families were first housed. I remember wondering if I would have to keep the kids from Iran away from those from Iraq. But I didn't, not at all. I've never seen that kind of tension between children."

There is no sign at school, say both teachers, of children grouping themselves according to country of origin, and friendships seem to blossom irrespective of nationality, colour or religion.

This is no doubt partly a matter of numbers. In Primary 1 at Ibrox there are currently three children from Congo, two from Turkey and one each from Iran, Burundi and Afghanistan. In P5 there are two from Afghanistan, two from Sri Lanka, and one each from Iran, Rwanda, Burundi, Turkey and Somalia. For many kids trans-national friendship is essential if they are to have any friends of their own age.

But Ms Coyle believes there is more to it: "You can see how they might cling on to someone who speaks the same language, but it doesn't seem to happen. They are desperate to learn English, so they make English-speaking pals really quickly. Football is an international language and the usual way for boys to make friends. For the girls we have a programme of playground games.

"Attitudes and hopes for the future are the biggest vehicles for motivating children. The biggest heartache I'll have to face will be when a family gets a negative decision and the kids have to go back to the country they've fled from."

Bilingual children tend to be highly motivated and parents very involved with their education, says Cheryl McFadyen. "But when families are told they can stay, they often go back to London where there are wider support networks. We aim to do the best we can while they are here."

'I meet many friendly white people in Glasgow. I lived in London for three months before I came to Scotland, and they told me there that Glasgow was not a good place to live. But I have made friends here and I like it'Mother of two girls, from Rwanda

'Teachers in Scotland are much friendlier than I expected. It was not difficult for my children to learn English. I keep telling them not to forget their own language. But they want to speak English all the time, even at home'Father of two boys, from Afghanistan

'When kids come here with no English at all, and within a few months they're speaking fluent Glaswegian, that is very rewarding'Mags Coyle, teacher at Ibrox Primary

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