Stars turn out to support North London charity for refugee children
BRENT, United Kingdom (UNHCR) - This month's launch of "Home from Home", a resource pack for teachers of refugee children, may not be the glitzy, high profile occasion usually associated with guest appearances by comedians and writers. Yet the inclusion of prominent British celebrities, including "White Teeth" author Zadie Smith, and TV comedian and writer Meera Syal, boasts the high regard many have for the important work of North London charity Salusbury World.
The charity supports the many refugee children attending Salusbury Primary School. The school is based in the London borough of Brent, one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the United Kingdom and home to 3,500 refugee children. Through the provision of extra English-language classes, after school and holiday clubs, the charity is able to successfully include refugee children in mainstream education.
The charity is extremely proactive, welcoming new refugee families and recognising the need to support and encourage the participation of parents. It provides advice and advocacy on educational, social and legal issues and hosts a weekly session from a voluntary advice service.
The school hosts pupils from 78 countries, speaking a total of 42 languages. Of a school population of 670, 15 percent have a refugee background. Though this is three times higher than the London average, staff do not share concerns that the school is being "swamped" by refugee children. Salusbury World has instead welcomed the diversity of language and culture within the community, encouraging children to be proud of themselves, their backgrounds and traditions.
Novelist Zadie Smith's work celebrates the cultural variety of a world created in the "century that gave us the gift of living next door to each other." She grew up in same area of London as Salusbury Primary School, an environment that gave her confidence in her own Anglo-Jamaican background. "Where so many people are different, you learn that you possess a great gift," she explains.
Despite such a cosmopolitan upbringing, it wasn't until she was a teenager that Smith first met the children of refugees. Moved by their predicament, she co-founded the charity, Children of the Storm, with fellow students and teachers to assist young refugees in the area. Smith describes her involvement as a "transformative experience". "Against the assumption of classmates that they should be so glad and grateful," she quickly learned that "'they' don't think of themselves as 'they', but as 'I', wanting the same opportunities as everyone else."
Comedian Meera Syal explains how for those with a Punjabi background, like herself, the refugee experience is indelible. Her own father spent time in a Delhi refugee camp following the partition of India in 1947. Only after returning to his hometown of Lahore (now in Pakistan) 50 years later was he able to begin discussing his experiences. Accompanying her father on his momentous visit, Syal finally understood his loss and indeed the "melancholy that had always surrounded him."
Syal's own experience of growing up without her extended family helps her to sympathise with refugee children, but she believes that like her, they will draw strength from their experiences.
Children from a background different to the host society "have a fantastic schizophrenic existence," she explains. "Able to observe the quirks" between cultures, "they become the go-betweens of two worlds." Believing that most writers feel displaced, she feels that her own comic ability was cultivated through the natural mimicry that living close to two different cultures inspires. Syal is confident that many refugee children will, like her, be drawn to a creative career.
Salusbury World is keen for others to benefit from its work. "The intention was always to share our experience," says Salusbury World development worker, Lynne Knight. As well as publishing "Home from Home", the charity also regularly trains educational professionals in the local area. Knight is aware of the importance of education for refugee children. "As often the primary English speaker, children reach a level of responsibility that children perhaps shouldn't have", she laments. "Students have had to miss school to help their families with their Home Office interview."
Despite the added complications that refugee children must face, Knight has been delighted with the commitment and progression of her pupils. Many exceed expectations and are an example of how kids can achieve their full potential with support.
The proud and grateful parents who have benefited from the hard work of the charity support this view. Reza Sohrabi from Iran, father of eight-year-old Amin, enthusiastically praises the nurturing atmosphere his son enjoys: "Amin arrived in England after a difficult journey, he couldn't speak English, but after six months he would rather be at school than anywhere else."
Dhorata Loku from Kosovo is grateful not only for the expert teaching offered to her daughter but to the personal determination of Salusbury World staff who campaigned tirelessly for her and her family to be allowed to remain in Britain. Despite suffering five years of legal limbo, Loku beams with pride when discussing the achievements of her daughter, Holta. Arriving in the charity's first year, Holta, initially insecure of how her status and lack of English would be perceived, was encouraged by her friendly reception. Now 15, she is bubbly and fluent in English, and preparing to take her final secondary school examinations. Holta is also fulfilling the prophecy of Meera Syal and this spring will take up a highly prized place at the UK National Youth Theatre.
The publishing of "Home from Home" will give more schools the necessary resources and inspiration to provide refugee children the opportunity to achieve their full potential.
Teachers interested in obtaining a copy of "Home from Home" should contact Salusbury World on [email protected]
By Paul Donohoe