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Thursday, November 10, 2022

‘You’ve got friends’: Birmingham school scheme aims to ease refugee trauma | Schools

Many of the pupils who arrive in Gemma Patel’s classroom at Birmingham’s City academy don’t speak.

“When students first come to us, they often don’t talk, they don’t communicate,” she said during a break from teaching a lesson on verbs. “It’s not because they can’t, but because they haven’t necessarily felt able to before.”

She is the assistant head of Core Hello, a pioneering programme set up by the Core Education Trust in September 2021 for newly arrived refugee and migrant children who need extra support settling in to school life in the UK.

Over 12 weeks, pupils are taught basic survival language skills, taken on trips into the city centre to help with cultural acclimatisation, and are given support for any trauma they may have experienced, before returning to mainstream school.

The trust has taken on a number of pupils who came to the UK after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, and said it was open to hosting Ukrainian refugees.

“It’s not just language that’s the barrier, it’s dealing with everything that they’ve gone through. Just moving and resettling is very traumatic for young people, let alone maybe coming from a country which is unsettled or has experienced war,” said Rekha Shell-Macleod, the head of school at City academy. “But we’ve found with Core Hello, in a short period of time they make the progress that in a normal school setting may take a year or two.”

With three members of staff to 20 pupils, it was a “huge investment as a trust”, she said, but it had made it much easier to spot signs of trauma and ensure pupils were able to integrate into normal school life when they were ready.

“When they first arrive, we do an activity where we ask them about themselves, and we’ll ask them who their friends are. Often they won’t be able to name anybody,” said Patel. “And then we say, but you’ve got 19 friends here in this room. And it’s really nice for them to realise that.”

Noaman (left) and his brother, Salman in school uniform
Salman (right) and his brother Noaman fled the Taliban last summer. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Previous research has shown refugee and asylum-seeking children face long delays accessing education after arriving in the UK, while their learning is affected by trauma and mental health difficulties, bullying and a lack of awareness and expertise among some school staff.

With the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Birmingham increasing, Core Hello hopes to provide an example of how schools can better help these pupils.

During a Wednesday morning English lesson, students use timelines they have drawn to explain their journey to the UK. Most have drawn flags from around the world, perhaps their home country’s highest mountain or national sport, in some cases war and invasion, and all culminate with a picture of a home Britain.

“In school in Afghanistan, I had friends and was captain of the cricket team,” said Salman, a year 9 pupil who started attending the City academy with his younger brother Noaman after their family fled the Taliban last summer. “We had to come to the UK on a flight and stayed in a hotel in London where it was very busy and crowded. I started school here and now we can finally live safely.”

Sayed who had to leave his parents behind in Afghanistan and flee as the Taliban were poised to take control. He spent 17 months travelling across Europe to finally reach his uncle’s home in Birmingham.
Sayed spent 17 months travelling across Europe to reach his uncle’s home in Birmingham. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

In a piece of school work, Salman wrote about how “Birmingham is a lot safer than Afghanistan because here is traffic lights to cross the road”, something he was not used to.

At the Jewellery Quarter academy, one of the Core trust’s schools, Sayed, a year 10 pupil, said he had travelled across Europe alone and spent months in a Calais refugee camp after his parents sent him away from Afghanistan for safety.

“I didn’t want to leave my parents, but I had to,” he said, speaking in Pashtun translated by a fellow pupil. “I had to travel alone and I was scared. [In Calais] the police kept hurting us and pushing us back. There was no food, so we had to eat apples and drink rainwater.”

He now lives with his uncle in Birmingham and is slowly settling in to school life, where his favourite subject is maths. He says he enjoys going to the park and playing cricket after school.

Jamie Barton, the headteacher of the Jewellery Quarter academy, said: “It’s our duty to support children who have fled persecution. Take Sayed – someone who travelled unaccompanied to flee the Taliban for thousands of miles – if we can’t give him a home as a school, then who will?”

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