United Kingdom: The Voices project – a unique platform for refugee children to share their stories

By Rachel Warner

Voices was a series of dual-language booklets of autobiographical writing by young asylum seekers and refugees in London schools, published by MRG in the 1990s, to meet a growing need for materials that reflected the experience of young members of minority groups. The first three books, published in 1991, were by Eritrean, Somali and Kurdish school students, and the second set of four books, African Voices, published in 1995, were by students from Angola, Sudan, Uganda and Zaire (as was).

The books included drawings by the school students, photographs of their home country, maps, a fact box and a historical introduction for teachers. They were designed to be used mainly at Key Stages 3 and 4 of the National Curriculum, for English teachers encouraging autobiographical writing, for citizenship education, and as a resource for teachers of English as an Additional Language (EAL) looking for relevant materials to use with school students and adults learning English. They included detailed activity suggestions for teachers.

The books were very well received, as this review in WUS News (March 1992) shows:

The series comes at an appropriate time. It can help counter racist attacks in the tabloid press that have tried to present the majority of refugees applying for asylum as ‘bogus’. Voices shows the tragedy of disrupted lives, of suffering and of the loss of childhood. This is the truer picture – the one the press should be presenting, in which ordinary people are swept up by events over which they have no control.… This series gives refugees an opportunity to speak. It is especially poignant that it is through the voices of children that their case is made.

Tom Deveson, in the Times Educational Supplement (10 November 1995), commented: ‘This excellent series of books … should be in every school and required reading for Cabinet Ministers … and editors whose noise is in inverse ratio to their knowledge or human sympathy.’

As much as the usefulness and success of the finished books, the way of producing them was significant – involving young people and community groups at all stages of the process. Meetings were held with relevant refugee organizations at the start of the project – for example, with the Kurdish Cultural Centre, Somali Education Project and Uganda Community Association in Lambeth, as well as with the Refugee Council and Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. It was important that the school students were asked to share their (often painful) experiences by someone they knew and trusted – usually an EAL teacher in their school. Most stories were written – either in English or the student’s first language – but some were oral accounts. All contributors checked their edited account before inclusion, and members of the community checked the books at all stages of production. All the stories were translated into the language chosen by the young contributor and presented in dual-language format. This gave the minority language(s) status in the books, and meant, for example, that Voices from Uganda included six languages in addition to English. In total, 16 different minority languages were included in the books, ranging from Tigrinya to Dinka, Acholi to Lingala, Kurdish to Arabic.

The process of producing the books was shared with many teachers – mostly in London – who attended workshops about the books and were encouraged to get their own refugee pupils to write about their experiences and produce ‘in-school’ collections of writing. It was also the inspiration for an innovative project in 2006 in Tower Hamlets, where young Somalis interviewed their own parents, leading to a publication ‘When You Lived in Somalia …’

As well as detailing some of the traumas that the young people had experienced, leading them to become asylum seekers in the first place, all the Voices books contained positive memories of the countries the young people had left. For example, a 15-year-old girl from Zaire wrote, ‘I remember us picking mangoes when the season came for the fruits to be ready. We ate most of them, but not all. There were too many.’ A 16-year-old boy from Eritrea wrote, ‘Usually I went to the cinema [in Asmara] with six or seven of my friends. We sat upstairs and made lots of noise. We were imitating the actions we saw on the film, and shouting and clapping.’

The horrors were not far away, however. A 9-year-old Somali girl in an oral account said, ‘I remember that soldiers opened fire on the kids and other people. There was a lot of screaming and crying. Pupils were falling down all around me. It was like being in a nightmare.’ A 9-year-old Angolan boy said, ‘The soldiers killed my friend Mikali. They put her by the wall and shot her. She was my friend.’

All of the books end with accounts of the difficult journeys undertaken by the young people and their families to get from their home country to Britain, and comments on settling in Britain and their new life in the country. These accounts show such resilience – for example, a 15-year-old Ugandan girl wrote, ‘I feel very happy because I was rescued from death. I could have been killed. I don’t feel like going back to my country because I am still afraid. But I would like to help in some way.’ Another (14-year-old) Ugandan girl wrote, ‘I’ve learnt to read, write and speak English better. I’ve made friends.’ And a 12-year-old Kurdish boy wrote, `I stopped crying all the time and I had a feeling things were going to work out.’

Photo: Batwa women in Uganda / MRG/Emma Eastwood