The things they've seen

Eileen Fursland

Sixth-formers at a north London school are reaching out to first-generation immigrants - to their mutual benefit. Eileen Fursland reports

Sinem Cekicler, Elif Unsalan and Ali Kel all remember what it was like to arrive in a new country, far from home, where everything seemed alien - even the language. The three Year 12 pupils are taking part in a project to help isolated elderly people from the local north London Turkish-speaking community. They, and other Turkish-speaking sixth-form pupils from Lea Valley high school in Enfield, befriend the elderly people and translate for them if necessary, helping them to fill in forms, write letters, read English newspapers and go shopping.

"We will be reading to them, having chats and hearing their memories. It will give me the opportunity to see those times through their eyes," says Elif, whose family came from Turkey 10 years ago.

Ali, who has been here for six years, says he will "get to know them and do what I can to stop them feeling lonely. When you visit them, they'll think they are worth something."

Twenty-five per cent of Lea Valley's pupils have come to Britain as refugees or asylum seekers, many from Kosovo, Somalia or Afghanistan. Some speak no English, and many have been through traumatic times. Fourteen per cent are Turkish, which is why the school decided to set up the community project.

"We have children in the sixth form who want to put something back into the Turkish community," says headteacher Janet Cullen-Cornelius. "We were looking at ways to develop the children, raise their self-esteem, improve their key skills and get them involved in citizenship. All these things came together in this project. The Enfield Turkish-Cypriot Association has a lunch club every week for older members of the Turkish community. Our project ties in with that.

"A lot of our students have difficulties with motivation. They are able, but highly disadvantaged because English is their second language. This project enables them to use their English in the community. Some can't get formal qualifications, but we want something that they can achieve. Any project like this helps because it makes them feel valued."

All the Turkish speakers at the 1,000-pupil Lea Valley high take GCSE Turkish in Year 10, and some of them go on to A-level. Ms Cullen-Cornelius expects to have 20 to 30 pupils of Turkish origin in the sixth form next year, and they will all get involved in the project. Later on, pupils further down the school could also take part. The project is funded by the Barclays New Futures award scheme - in this case, a pound;3,000 one-year award for a school and its pupils working with a community partner on social, educational or community challenges.

Lea Valley plans to make a video drama of the project in which pupils will dramatise themes from the lives of the older people. The grant has been used to buy a video camera and a large television, to pay the pupils' expenses and to hire a bus to transport the elderly people to a debut screening.

Meyrut Ceylan, Lea Valley's Turkish teacher, is developing a certification scheme to recognise the translation and communication skills the students will develop as a result of taking part in the project.

The teachers and pupils believe the social responsibility and the experience of taking part - and the translation certificate - will enhance the young people's employment prospects.

The elderly people will value the practical help, the friendship and the chance to pass on their experiences. But as important, says Mr Ceylan, they are happy to do anything that will help the younger generation of Turkish speakers. "The kids' futures are important to them as well," he says.

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Eileen Fursland

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