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introduction what if i'm not real stranger
desti.Nation dust rising alem will stay

Alem Will Stay

School teacher Mark Krantz published the following article in January 2005 in reflecting on the "Alem Will Stay" project.

 

 

Alem's Story:

A school explores contradictions within attitudes to asylum using video art

 

How would secondary school pupils react to finding out that one of their school friends was to be deported? And how would this help them reassess their beliefs about race, belonging and asylum?

A Greater Manchester secondary teacher and his students have been working with international video artists Virtual Migrants to create a piece of work about the experiences of asylum called, 'Alem Will Stay.' The project began with a series of workshops at Lostock High School in Trafford. Discussions were led with students by artist Kooj Chuhan and teacher Mark Krantz around the issues of asylum.

They found that discussions based around simple human concerns, which avoided the usage of phrases such as asylum-seeker yet focused on exactly the same issues, led to a completely different perception by the school children - one which was almost universally sympathetic.


Mark Krantz from Lostock High explains.

 

Citizenship lessons at the school had been used and were needed to tackle questions of race and prejudice when refugee people seeking asylum moved into our area. A few attend our school. While we were trying to welcome such students and engender empathy for their situation, from outside school the media and politicians provided arguments suggesting that rejection and hostility are the appropriate responses.

For this project, we planned a series of issue-based classroom workshops as preparation. At our first lesson we introduced the program by explaining the aims of the project. Big mistake! As soon as students saw the word 'asylum', there was horror, aggression, negative comments and a rejection of any rational explanations. We had a serious rethink. Students had rejected our initial approach which was based on correcting their misunderstanding 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, but also how things have changed over time. ('Who does these jobs today?' and, 'Who did these jobs in granddad's day?). We then looked at experiences of young people in different schools ('How are the Eaton Public School pupils different from those at our school?'). In both lessons we drew out the borders between people, but also similarities.

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 key to breaking the blanket rejection of all rationality and empathy we experienced when we started the first lesson.

Reading Alem's story connected with students’ own experiences and emotions. They could identify with the fellow pupil Alem, in a way not possible with the abstract category of 'asylum seekers'.

On the first page of the book, Alem's parents are shot dead in Ethiopia. He subsequently escapes to Britain, lives on the streets, stays in a children's home, is bullied, but 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 a piece of writing along the lines of:

 

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 their friend stay'. Some of those previously hostile created letters asking for 'help with their friend Alem', arguing 'he isn't doing anyone any harm.'

Following the discussion sessions came a series of drama and video workshops by artist Kooj Chuhan from Virtual Migrants and Lostock drama teacher Sue Hilton. Drama students worked together to tell Alem's story. They made a video called 'Alem Will Stay!' in which students argue from various positions about whether to support Alem or not. Eventually they decide to launch a campaign, collect names on a petition, hold a demonstration, a benefit concert, and to send a delegation to the Home Secretary asking for Alem to stay.

This video forms part of a set of video and digital art installations entitled Terminal Frontiers by Virtual Migrants and is currently touring galleries around the UK (see www.virtualmigrants.com for details). It also forms an effective teaching resource. After viewing the video this year, some of my new students believed that Alem was a former student who really did come to our school. They express great concern over his plight, especially after seeing the video of older students campaigning for him to stay.

When the 14-15 year old students wrote letters asking for Alem to stay in Britain, they used arguments like: ‘now he has been educated here, it's wrong to send him back’, ‘he could get killed like his parents were’ and ‘it's tight to send him back after all he's been through’.

 

Some offered to share their own bedrooms with Alem if it helped his case, or said they would help out with food and money. Many of these comments were from students who had previously showed hostility to cases of asylum seekers.

There is an ongoing contradiction between young peoples experiences of the world based upon a common humanity, and a world explained in terms of difference and rejection - 'let him stay - he's my friend', compared to, 'we don't want them sort round here - eating our food and taking our houses'. We found that successful teaching must build on the former in order to challenge the latter.

This 'contradictory consciousness' (Gramsci's concept) is characteristic of many people's ideas. They may hold some of the dominant racist ideas in society, but also reject these in the light of experience that shows 'them' to be people just like you and me.  Understanding and developing this concept may be critical for progressive educational, media and art works to be able to engage with the melting pot of prevalent attitudes in local communities and the public at large.

Dehumanisation is central to maintaining prejudice and discrimination against asylum seekers. The reality of the human story of the person who is a refugee who now seeks asylum can undermine these attitudes. Only when you can put the human face back onto the person, can you have success in broadening people's understanding of these issues.  Furthermore, it is difficult to see a greater dehumanisation than that perpetrated around the racist politics surrounding asylum and terror.

The War on Terror has reinforced racist attitudes in society, including those against asylum seekers and refugees. Here is a farcical yet typical example of how it worked in real life 'on the ground' as perceived by the students at my school.

 

As a result of the War on Terror, five Iraqi Kurds were arrested from the Dolphin Café in Manchester and detained under anti-terror legislation. Police said a Manchester United ticket and a shopping bag had been retreived. Media speculation was that the football ground and a shopping centre were 'targets for terrorists'.

 

On the front page of the Manchester Evening News was a story of how the football fans would defy the 'terror threat' and go to the game. The suspected terrorists were described as living in an area 'where many asylum seekers are living'. This was talked about in the students' homes and my students remember it. But there was no terror threat. The Iraqi Kurds were latter released without charge. One turned out to be a lifelong MUFC fan, with a legitimate ticket for the match.

 

In saying this, I often reflect on the contrasting situation when the first Kosovan asylum seekers arrived at Lostock High, and the Government encouraged us to give support for the refugees - Tony Blair's war of 'humanitarian intervention'.  Then the Manchester Evening News' headline had been "Refugees Welcome to Manchester".

 

A further reflection of mine as a teacher is in the need to develop such challenging curricula that come out of actual tested experience while developing a project format in response to student reactions. My limited shot at this in the wake of the collaboration with Kooj Chuhan and Virtual Migrants has yielded a re-useable beginning to what could be bigger and used more widely if the appropriate development was enabled to take place.

 

The Terminal Frontiers exhibition treads the fine line between re-humanising people and developing broader political scenarios, a role which art is able to usefully and appropriately fulfill to extensive levels.  In addition, within the wider collection of works that comprise the Terminal Frontiers exhibition, Virtual Migrants' deliberate juxtaposition between the video produced by students about Alem and the various references to the politics of Terror is not misplaced either.