This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 5
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Nurturing a welcoming environment for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK

Sam Harris

When emergencies happen, people may move country to find safer places for their families, but moving on with their lives when they arrive in a new place is not always easy. In this article, Sam writes about the Earth Asylum project that visits schools in the north-west of England to promote internationalism.

The International Society of Greater Manchester works to support international students, promote international friendship and celebrate diversity across all of the universities in the area. Since 2010, the organisation has extended its reach by developing community projects that seek to foster global thinking, raise cultural awareness and help tackle prejudice and racism.

Focusing on schools, three of the Society’s projects aim to give young people positive experiences with people from different cultures and backgrounds at an early age, to help broaden their horizons and make them more open to the world. Through face-to-face interaction, storytelling and play, the projects aim to humanise immigration and nurture global citizens who are culturally aware and sympathetic to issues surrounding asylum seekers and refugees residing in the UK. At the same time, the projects provide international students and refugees with an experience of volunteering with children in schools, and the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the communities in which they live.

The projects rely on volunteers to represent their countries and facilitate cultural activities in schools. Over 1,500 volunteers from 110 different countries have now taken part, delivering activities for over 15,000 children across schools in the north-west. The majority of the volunteers are international students from the three universities in Greater Manchester, but the International Society is increasingly building links with different community groups to increase the volunteering capacity for the projects. The volunteers are provided with a detailed information pack, informal support when required, and an initial training session before going into schools. Based on the information pack, they have the freedom to develop their own activities relating to one of three projects.

Rocket World and Bee Hippy Happy
RocketWorld (for 7-11-year-olds) was the first project developed in Greater Manchester in 2010, with funding from HSBC bank. The children receive pretend passports and go on a ‘mission’ for international peace and friendship. A giant Earth is used as a centrepiece: the ‘EarthBall’ is 2.4 metres high and covered with satellite images of Earth. The children fly imaginary rockets to visit volunteers from all over the world and learn about different cultures. Activities are developed to encourage the children to ask questions, have conversations, and interact with the volunteers. They include craft activities, songs and games. The EarthBall shows the planet without borders and is used to show where the volunteers come from and convey the idea that we all share the same world. The Earth creates a real ‘wow’ factor for the children taking part and has a powerful visual impact.

Initially schools were contacted directly, and as the project’s reputation has grown, we are contacted by both local schools and schools from other UK towns and cities. The Bee Hippy Happy project (for 5-6-year-olds) was started in response to demand from schools for a project for younger children. They learn about the environmental importance of bees to the world, and then pretend to be bees themselves – buzzing around the world. At each country they ‘visit’ on the giant EarthBall, they meet a volunteer from that country who facilitates activities. Play and fun are central to the project, which aims to leave children feeling curious about the world and positive towards difference.

Earth Asylum
The Earth Asylum Project (for secondary schools) launched in 2015, was developed to nurture openness and diversity, and to address racial intolerance and hate crime experienced by migrants to the UK. Earth Asylum aims to humanise immigration by giving young people the chance to meet student volunteers and other migrants, recruited through local educational institutions, community groups and charitable organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers.

© International Society

© International Society

The Earth Asylum activities take the form of small group discussions: the pupils rotate around the volunteers and take part in four or five individual sessions. The volunteers share and reflect on their personal stories. As these stories are potentially distressing for both volunteers and pupils, there is a more rigorous selection and training process, to prepare the volunteers for pupils’ potential reactions to the stories, and the questions that may arise. Likewise, the schools are provided with the volunteers’ stories before the project visit so that the teachers know what to expect.

Currently, teachers are able to develop the issues raised during the Earth Asylum visit to their particular curriculum needs. A future aim is to develop a teaching pack that would assist them. We have also received enquiries from the USA, and are exploring the development of a pilot Earth Asylum live webinar.

The feedback from children and teachers participating in Earth Asylum has been very positive about the project’s ability to impact on children’s perceptions and feelings regarding immigration, asylum seekers and refugees. It is hoped that building young people’s understanding of the lives of asylum seekers and refugees will help tackle the misunderstandings that can lead to hatred and a hostile environment for new arrivals to the UK.

“A huge thank you to you and the lovely volunteers who were in school on Wednesday. The students have been talking about their experiences all week. Students have said ‘hearing the stories of refugees makes you appreciate what we have and where we live’; ‘We need to remember to apply the stories of others in our everyday lives, so that we learn to not judge other people’. I believe everything they heard will stay with them in their futures.” (Teacher, Stockport)

The International Society develops and maintains collaborative partnerships to deliver all of its projects: students and staff from the Universities of Manchester and Salford and Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as members of local community groups, are key to their success. For the education projects, funding has been provided by the Duchy of Lancaster Benevolent Fund, HSBC bank, the Oglesby Charitable Trust and the Stoller Charitable Trust.

Sam Harris is the Project Director at the International Society, responsible for developing all three of the projects.