The experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers of being dispersed and living in a new place often go unrecorded as their knowledge and ideas get bundled up in the asylum process.
In Kirklees, Yorkshire, the My Life in Huddersfield project aims to change that. “Young refugees and asylum seekers have a positive contribution to make in informing us about how to best meet their needs and recognise their contributions to their families and communities,” says Ruth Neville, senior lecturer in social work at the University of Huddersfield.
The project, directed by an advisory panel and the young people themselves, consulted a community artist, a youth worker and an artist from the refugee community in Huddersfield.
“One panel member was part of the ethnic minority achievement team and she had contact with most of the asylum-seeking children in Kirklees and the schools they attended,” says project co-ordinator Kate Smith.
One school was making particularly good progress. “It had already supported and integrated asylum-seeking and refugee pupils into the life of the school. A teacher was working with a mixed age group of young asylum seekers to produce a welcome booklet for new pupils,” says Smith.
Young people were helped to record their experiences in ways that they felt comfortable with – with or without words. “The young people could choose how they wanted to record their ideas and they largely directed the process,” says Smith. “They made beautiful boxes in which to store their thoughts and which reflected their favourite colours, textures and themselves.”
Neville adds: “We hope that their boxes will form the central part of a display that helps students to develop an understanding of the personal experiences of the young people within the wider political and professional context.”
Instant cameras proved a hit as each young person took photographs of the places and people that were significant in their lives in Huddersfield.
One picture is captioned: “I chose this photo because I like flowers. These flowers are like the ones in Albania. I remember my country. I feel happy when thinking of my country.”
Out of the project three areas had particular significance for young people.
First, most had experienced some form of bullying and racism. They felt hurt and angered “by the way people look at you and the things they say like ‘refugee – get back to your own country”’.
Name calling, such as “Iraqi dog”, was frequent, as were other negative experiences. “When people know where I come from they change, they walk away,” recalls one of the young people. However, they were also clear that not everyone “treats you bad or different”. Their school friends and those from within the refugee community were of great importance.
Second, for many young people their positive and enjoyable day-to-day experiences of shopping, playing sport, going to school or the cinema were underpinned by a deep spiritual and psychological hurt. “People don’t know inside how you feel, how it feels if you are from a different country,” one young person says.
And third, some compared education in their country of origin with that in Huddersfield.
Neville says: “For some of the girls having teachers who treated them kindly contrasted vividly with their previous experiences of being beaten in school. Many spoke about how much they and their parents valued the education they were now receiving. They spoke movingly of their absolute determination to succeed and their hopes and dreams of becoming doctors, scientists, writers, rock stars and footballers.”
The project intended to produce a practice guide for those working with refugees and asylum seekers. However, the young people dismissed that as “boring” and are working with a graphic designer to present their work and messages as a calendar. And one young person outlines the brief: “It must show different people from different backgrounds. We would like our drawings, our words and the photographs we have taken to go in. We want it to show something beautiful about Huddersfield and ourselves.”
– Contact Ruth Neville on 01484 472659 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Scheme: My Life in Huddersfield
Staffing: Ruth Neville, senior lecturer in social work, University of Huddersfield, and Kate Smith, project co-ordinator
Inspiration: To record the often forgotten and lost experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers dispersed to the area
Cost: £6,000 grant from the school of human and health sciences at the University of Huddersfield