A school explores contradictions in attitudes to asylum seekers using video art.
How would secondary school students react to finding out that one of their school friends was to be deported? And how would this help them reassess their beliefs about racism, belonging and asylum? As a Greater Manchester secondary teacher, I have been working with my students and with international video artists Virtual Migrants to create a piece of work about the experiences of asylum entitled ‘Alem will stay!’.
Citizenship lessons at the school had been used (and were needed) to tackle questions of racism and prejudice when families seeking asylum moved into the area. A few of their children attended our school. While we were trying to welcome such students and engender sympathy for their plight, the media and politicians were suggesting that rejection and hostility were appropriate responses.
The project began with a series of workshops at Lostock High School in Trafford where discussions were led by artist Kooj Chuhan and me in advance of any creative production. At our first lesson, we introduced the teaching programme with the aims of the work. Big mistake! As soon as students saw the word ‘asylum’, there was horror, aggression, negative comments and a rejection of any rational analysis. We had a serious rethink. Students had rejected our initial approach which was based on correcting their misunderstandings of refugee numbers and explaining human rights entitlements for those seeking asylum. We needed to connect with students’ own experiences.
As a result, the next lesson looked at how men and women, and the jobs they do in society, are different as well as how such things have changed over time. (‘Who does these jobs today?’, ‘Who did these jobs in grandad’s day?’) We then looked at experiences of young people in different schools. (How are the Eton public school pupils different from those at our school?) In both lessons, we drew out the barriers between people but also the similarities.
We found that discussions based around simple human concerns, which avoided words such as ‘asylum seeker’, yet focused on the same issues, led to a completely different perception by the students – one which was universally sympathetic.
To re-humanise our work, as we finally returned to issues about current-day migrants, we looked at a character Alem from the book, Refugee Boy, by Benjamin Zephaniah. Using him was the key to breaking the blanket rejection of all rationality and empathy which we experienced when we had started the project. Reading Alem’s story connected with students’ own experiences and emotions. They could identify with him in a way not possible with the abstraction of ‘asylum seeker’.
On the first page of the book, Alem’s parents are shot dead in Ethiopia. He subsequently escapes to Britain, is on the streets, stays in a children’s home and is bullied. But he also makes friends at school. Students are asked to imagine Alem is at our school and he has made some friends. This is the starting point for the question: the government wants to send Alem back to Ethiopia; what do you think should happen? Write a letter to the home secretary explaining your views. Most asked the home secretary to ‘let our friend stay’. Some of those previously hostile wrote asking for ‘help with our friend Alem’, arguing that ‘he isn’t doing anyone any harm’.
Following the discussions came a brief series of drama and video workshops by artist Kooj Chuhan (from Virtual Migrants) with Lostock’s drama teacher Sue Hilton. Drama students built on Alem’s story. They made the video ‘Alem will stay!’ in which students argued from various positions about whether to support him or not. Eventually, they decided to launch a campaign, collect signatures on a petition, hold a benefit concert and a demonstration and ultimately send a delegation to the then home secretary, David Blunkett, demanding Alem be allowed to stay.
All the 14-15-year-old students wrote letters asking for Alem to be able to remain. Arguments included: now he has been educated, it’s wrong to send him back; he could get killed as his parents were; it’s tight to send him back after all he’s gone through. Some offered to share their own room with him, others said they would help out with food and money. And many of such offers came from those students who, in other situations, had shown hostility to ‘asylum seekers’. The technique was so effective that some of my new students, seeing the older students on video campaigning for Alem to stay, believed that Alem was an ex-student who really had come to our school.
What emerged from the project was the clear contradiction between young people’s feelings of common humanity born out of their experience and the world they get explained to them in terms of difference and rejection. We found that successful teaching had to build on the former in order to challenge the latter. And I believe there is a need to develop challenging aspects to the curriculum which come out of actual tested experience in a format which is responsive to students’ reaction.
The video produced at Lostock High School forms part of a set of excellent educational video and digital art installations produced by Virtual Migrants, entitled ‘Terminal Frontiers’, alongside challenging works by leading UK artists. The exhibition opens at Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, London, on 20 January 2004 as part of a tour of galleries across Britain. See their website for further information.