- the exhibition -
Alem Will Stay
A school explores contradictions within attitudes to asylum using video art
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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
government wants to send Alem back to Ethiopia. What do you think should
happen? Write a letter to the Home Secretary, explaining your views.
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.'
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.
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.
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
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
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.