On the Road during Refugee Week

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Children watching Child Migrant Stories in Hackney Museum

Child Migrant Stories was in demand during Refugee Week. We started off on Sunday 19th June with a screening of the film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present in the Festival Hall on the South Bank. There was a great atmosphere with dance, music and poetry performances from people with a refugee background.

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Refugee Week in the Royal Festival Hall

Amnesty, under the banner, What have they ever done for us? invited visitors to chart the journeys of well known people who have contributed to our social, cultural and political life.

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Amnesty’s interactive, ‘What have they ever done for us?’

Passing Tides, the story of Linh Vu who as a young girl escaped Vietnam by boat with her father, was shown throughout the week at the V&A Museum of Childhood. After several weeks preparation Hackney Museum launched an ambitious two-hour programme with primary school children based on four of the Child Migrant Stories. Almost 200 children participated in these workshops.

At the beginning of one workshop Josie, the museum educator, asked,“How many of you were born abroad?” Four hands shot up.“How many of you have parents or grandparents who were born abroad?”A forest of hands – all but 3 or 4 children had parents or grandparents born abroad.

I watched the introductory film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present with one school group. They were transfixed and then plied me with questions.“How did you find people to be interviewed,” asked a bright spark of a girl.“I’ve lived and worked in East London for over 40 years,” I replied. “So I knew some of the people already.”

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Being quizzed about the film in Hackney Museum

How I found people to be interviewed was, of course, more complicated. I followed up people who I knew from when I was running a training clothing workshop with Bangladeshi clothing workers in Spitalfields in the early 1980s. I contacted Mr. Vu who I knew when he first arrived in Hackney as one of the Vietnamese ‘boat people.’ At the time I was working as a community education worker with Hackney Adult Education and helped Mr. Vu find premises for English and mother tongue classes. Some of the people I interviewed run businesses in Hackney. Argun, from Cyrpus, has sold me stationery for years. Eylem, from Turkey, has served me coffee and Turkish breakfast. Local community organisations and neighbours, too, have helped to put me in touch with people.

After the film the children divided into four groups. They looked through a replica of the photo album that Argun saved from his bombed out house in Cyprus at the age of 12 and discussed what they would save if they had to escape in a hurry.

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Argon’s photo album that he rescued from his bombed out house

They fingered a huge multi-coloured African cloth similar to the one that Claudine used to carry her young brother through the forest to the Congo during the Rwandan civil war.

They admired the drawings that Linh drew of her escape from Vietnam with her father. The fishing boat that took them out to the South China Sea; the British boat that rescued Linh, her father and fellow passengers when they had run our of food and a storm was brewing; the porthole through which Linh spied the Thai pirates lurking on the horizon.

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Children examine Linh Vu’s drawing of being rescued by a British boat

The children rewrote and performed the words of Henry’s moving song, There isn’t any place safe to live for the refugees. Henry, a musician, poet and artist, escaped the civil war in El Salvador at the age of 17.

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Children compose new words for There isn’t Any Place Safe to Live by Henry Bran

I felt sad that Henry was not there to see how children were inspired by his song featured in our introductory film. Henry died just a few weeks after I interviewed him. But I was glad that his daughter, Gabriela, who has inherited her father’s artistic talent, would see how his father is inspiring another generation.

At the beginning of the workshop the children wrote in faint pen what they already knew about refugees. At the end they wrote in darker pen what they had learnt. The results were impressive.

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What children knew about refugees before and after the workshop

It is a joy to see how Child Migrant Stories is being used so effectively as a learning resource. Hackney Museum staff found that the introductory film, in particular, resonated with children’s lives: “Children have been able to compare the stories on the screen to their own family’s journey, and have been so excited to see places that they recognise on the big screen.”

This is what one child, aged 11, thought about her experience at the museum. “We’re here happily living our lives with our play stations and mobile phones. I’ve got everything handed to me on a plate, but not everyone has that and it’s important to remember that during Refugee Week.”

A year 6 teacher from Mossbourne Parkside Academy remarked, “Refugee Week is more relevant now than it has ever been. It’s vital for children to know what it means …and the workshop at the museum helps them to see the ‘refugee’ as a person with a story and not a number, statistic or news story.”

Hackney Gazette covered the initiative with the headlines, “Negative perceptions of migrants overturned during Refugee Week at Hackney Museum.” http://www.hackneygazette.co.uk/news/education/negative_perceptions_of_migrants_overturned_during_refugee_week_at_hackney_museum_1_4595139

Linh encouraged her daughter’s school to show Passing Tides during Refugee Week. This is how a Year 2 teacher from Lauriston School responded,“Poplar Class watched it and were enthralled. We had a great discussion about why people end up being refugees, and where they come from and where they go to, and what people can do to help. We thought Linh’s drawings were amazing!”

Refugee Week ended with a screening of Passing Tides at the Rio cinema before the film Fire at Sea, set on and around the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was wonderful to see Linh’s beautiful drawings on the big screen. The double bill was a success. Both films featured moving stories of people risking their lives at sea in search of safety but they differed too. Linh, who escaped Vietnam with her father by fishing boat, told her story in her own words. In Fire at Sea the migrants’ harrowing lives, and indeed deaths, are almost a backdrop to the story of a young boy from Lampedusa.

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Waiting for the screening at the Rio Cinema

After the films Mitch, my fellow filmmaker, and myself joined Dr Anna Arnone, who has studied migration in relation to Lampedusa, in a question and answer session. People were surprised to hear that Lampedusa, besides being the arrival point for many migrants and the place where many have drowned offshore, is also a popular tourist destination.

We got some lovely feedback about the event, “I thought the film (Passing Tides) was brilliant – the story so cleverly told and illustrated with very evocative art and photographs. I actually cried and I think the combination of the harrowing details told in such a matter of fact way and the blending of domestic and international news throughout was just right. My friend thought Fire at Sea was quite wonderful and they both gave us the basis of a night’s discussion over supper.”

Another visitor was inspired to read in the credits that the film was shot on IPhone 6s. Our only regret about the Rio screening was that Linh could not join us. She was trampling about in the mud at Glastonbury.

We would like to thank all our partners for offering us the opportunity to share Child Migrant Stories – the Rio, the South Bank, the V&A Museum of Childhood and Hackney Museum. There are already plans to work with some of them in the future, “In the coming months and years, we’d love to continue to explore more of the stories and design ways of making them accessible to the children of Hackney.” Hackney Museum

But we also believe the website and films are of international appeal. Passing Tides had over 8,000 viewings on YouTube within a week – from Hackney to Ho Chi Minh City, from Sydney to San Francisco.

With the recent report showing that the 6 richest countries have only taken 9% of the world’s refugees we know there is no room for complacency.

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My involvement with Child Migration Stories

Early in 2014 I was interviewed as one of a number of people who came to East London under the age of 18 and from a wide variety of countries. No-one had ever asked me about that period of my life before, and as well as contributing to what has now developed into a valuable and moving web resource, this experience has had an unexpected effect on me.

Having told my story in some detail I then tucked it away safely, probably never to be revisited. Then a couple of months ago I was asked to check and validate my contribution to the website. Out of the blue I had to revisit all that I had shared.

Two years ago I retired as an Anglican parish priest after 35 years of working in a succession of East End churches. For the first time, since I was a child, there has been time to reflect on the jigsaw pieces of my life. Things seem to just happen in life, especially when you’re a child. You get on with growing up and living day to day and don’t think too deeply about things. Until it all stops.

When I was interviewed I could not have foreseen how the issues of migration would blow up into such a live issue; nor how, as we look helplessly on at overloaded boats in the Mediterranean, these childhood stories of migration would be so relevant. Some migrants, in their desperate attempt to make their way to the relative safety of Europe, never make it and lives are lost at sea. These are people like us but turned, by larger forces and negative attitudes, into ‘them’ – an inconvenience, a ‘problem’ to be dealt with, please God by some other country, not our own. People just like us are dismissed and diminished behind words such as ‘hordes’ and ‘swarms’ facing little understanding of the terrors and devastation they have had to flee; under conditions which most of us, hopefully, will ever know but would equally flee, to save our children and ourselves.

But it was a child who shocked us into a deeper reflection and, for many of us, into action and compassion for the plight of people, each with their personal story and dignity obscured in the daily headlines. The child was Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian-Kurd, fleeing with his family from the war-ravaged town of Kobani whose little body we saw washed up on a beach near the Turkish town of Bodrum. His five-year-old brother, Galip, was found dead nearby. So often the larger issues which we avoid, deny or misread, can affect us more powerfully when we see their effect on a small, innocent child whose life has been robbed from him. I wept as I watched, on the news, the lifeless body of this otherwise healthy and once lively boy being lifted from the beach where countless other children might just have played. The story of Aylan and Galip is one of untold grief and shock for a family and for all who loved them. Behind all the cold statistics of casualties are human stories such as these.

The testimonies in Child Migration Stories, seen though the eyes of a child and the feelings and memories they have carried into their adult lives, have a similar effect on me, cutting across, as they do, the larger stories and prejudices about those who migrate. The stories in this collection are not all of trauma or tribulation but each speaks of displacement and relocation; of the challenges and difficulties of integration into new surroundings, new communities, new cultures and often of learning a new language. It is not always a story of welcome.

I left India at the age of 8 amidst civil unrest and bloodshed.  Dreams of a warm welcome and a chocolate-box England of thatched cottages were splintered on day one by the rugged reality of East London and the shock discovery that I was brown (my sister and parents were white but I never knew that!). I was not the flavour of the day. I never shared any of that with my family, who as adults were more prepared for such change. They never realised what haunted me from what I had seen in India or that I was being racially abused in the streets of London when they were not. I rediscovered those layers of my childhood through telling my story to Eithne.

Reading the many and varied stories of child migrants took the lid off this lifelong childhood ‘secret’. With some shock and relief, I discovered others who, in many different ways, have also had to find a way of dealing with displacement, prejudice or even worse. I know none of the other contributors but for the first time I feel a solidarity with those who have experienced unacknowledged trauma in their childhood and who also were never totally welcomed by the ‘mother country.’

As votes are fought for globally, myths are propagated and this unfolding human tragedy of migration is reduced to soundbites and mindless prejudice, the honest witness of children is perhaps the most powerful corrective; to shock us into being in touch with what our own human experience might be were any of us to be displaced and dispossessed; were any of us reduced to being a number and a ‘nuisance’.

For myself I need to work on the memories that I am now in touch with. For the first time I am learning to embrace the child I once was; to feel for that little boy, as I would any other child, who has seen things no child should ever see; to assure him that, even as an immigrant, he is more than OK and fully a part of this community and society to which he has given most of his life in service and citizenship. It is hard, and this will be a long-term process, but I am so grateful to this project, both for bearing such important testimony to feed into a wider global debate, but also for touching on, and opening up, my and others early experiences, hopefully for our healing and growth.

Duncan Ross

You can read Duncan’s Spotlight Story here.