On The Road Blog
FT Behind the Scenes: London
- By Joseph Bednarek on January 3rd, 2013
- Category: Blog, Europe and Eurasia, Featured, Featured Blog, Home
It’s Tuesday, December 11, 2012 and I am in a taxi with Financial Times reporter James Pickford. We’ve just come from a visit to Global Fund for Children grantee partner YOH, which is located in the Haggerston district of the London borough of Hackney.
Although Hackney is close to the center of London (you can walk to London Bridge from the Haggerston train station in about 45 minutes), the borough is one of the most deprived in the United Kingdom and suffers from high unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, and crime connected to local gangs affiliated with the drug trade. YOH was founded by young people in the borough to serve this community, and the organization has helped hundreds of vulnerable children and youth stay in school and enter university or find employment. James and I were able to meet with YOH director Ergel Hassan and some of the teenagers active in YOH’s programs. YOH has worked hard to earn its reputation as an essential and trusted presence in Hackney, and I left thinking that it was a good first example for James of GFC’s focus on grassroots, community-based organizations.
London is a city that looks and feels big, and as is the case with most of the other massive cities in the world, visitors to London generally only see a small part of the city—usually London’s famous city center, a mixture of historical and modern buildings that is the epicenter of British tourism, business, and culture. And like many large European cities in the post-2008 economic crisis environment, London has a high rate of urban poverty and rising youth unemployment. So to see our next GFC partner today, we aren’t headed to central London; our taxi driver circles around instead to get to Southwark, the large borough immediately across the Thames from the center of London.
Southwark is another borough that exemplifies the challenges that face many children and youth across the UK, and yet another example of how quickly conditions change once you leave central London. London continues to be a top destination for migrants from Africa, Asia, and even Latin America, and this migration has added to the already impressive cultural diversity in boroughs like Southwark. However, this trend has also been a challenge for the city’s healthcare, education, and housing systems. During periods of high economic growth, the UK’s social safety net was able to offer new arrivals to the UK an opportunity to settle and integrate into British society. Unfortunately, the economic crisis that began in 2008 and continues to linger in the UK and Europe has put a severe strain on the UK’s ability to provide for its most vulnerable residents, and in particular newly arrived migrants and their children.
GFC partner Rewrite works in Southwark with one of the most vulnerable groups in the country: children who have sought asylum in the UK. Nearly all of the children who are asylum seekers in the UK do not speak English as a first language, and they have often come from very traumatic circumstances. Many of these children arrived unaccompanied, without the basic support of their families. Even those children who are in the UK with their families face a difficult journey to learn English as teenagers and access social services. Most of Rewrite’s beneficiaries live within a few miles of London’s rich and glamorous city center, but they face daily struggles to find their way with a new language and culture.
Rewrite’s founders discovered that many of these children felt marginalized in British society, so they developed programs to help these kids express themselves and gain confidence in their ability to succeed in the UK. For example, Rewrite’s program React, a youth theater group made up of teenagers from different cultural and national backgrounds, explores the social, cultural, and political issues that are important to the young performers. Today, though, James and I are visiting Rewrite’s other main initiative, Creative ESOL, which uses drama and creative writing, together with traditional ESOL methods, to help recently arrived children learn English and build self-confidence and social networks.
Children who are asylum seekers or new immigrants to the UK often feel that the majority of Londoners don’t know about them or what they have been through just to make it to the UK. What the support of The Global Fund for Children has done, according to Rewrite director Eleanor Cocks, is to demonstrate to these kids that someone else outside of their city, even from the faraway United States, values them and is interested in helping them. The purpose of today’s visit to the Creative ESOL class, then, is to show Financial Times readers, in the UK, US, and worldwide, that there are extremely vulnerable children just across the river from the center of London, and that local London charities need more assistance to continue their critical work serving children and youth.
Today’s class is actually being held in an old crypt under St. Peter’s Church off of Walworth Road, south of the Elephant and Castle tube stop. In fact, James and I take a wrong turn and consider jumping a stone wall and walking through an old cemetery before thinking it would be better to take the long way around to get to the crypt.
Rewrite has a small budget, so staff members try to find affordable performance and class space anywhere they can, and sometimes that place happens to be in the crypt of a church! The lesson today is attended by about a dozen children, aged about 12 to 15, who come from a variety of countries, including Somalia, Peru, Bolivia, China, and India. Eleanor tells us that this is the last class of the term before the winter holiday break, and the instructor is using this class to review what the kids have learned over the last few months. Rewrite’s approach to teaching English to speakers of other languages, though, is focused on using dramatic performances, storytelling, and writing, all of which we see during today’s class. I take part in one of the activities, an exercise that I’ve seen used in a similar way as an improv activity, during which participants must demonstrate an action and the person to the left of them must describe that action. All of the activities used during the class are part of Rewrite’s Creative ESOL methodology, which continues to evolve and incorporate new ideas.
Even after just a few months, the impact on the children in the class, particularly on their self-confidence, has been significant, according to Eleanor and Thea Dix, the ESOL instructor. They point out a girl named Schaila who barely spoke any English at all during the first few classes. Eleanor and Thea think that Schaila was born in France and came to London, but it’s possible she was born somewhere in French-speaking West Africa and lived for a time in France before arriving in the UK. The participants of the ESOL class are referred to Rewrite by local schools, and the Rewrite staff and instructors usually don’t know the exact details of how each of the children came to the UK. For most of the children, sharing the story of their journey to the UK would be difficult, not only because of the lack of English ability but also because most of these journeys involved some sort of trauma along the way.
With this in mind, Rewrite’s ESOL instructors try not to be therapists but instead focus their attention on building self-confidence through improvements in English and making friends with other recent arrivals to the UK. That approach has clearly paid off for Schaila. As I watch her today, I see that although her level of English is still developing, she confidently takes part in all activities and seems to be friends with many of the other kids. I’ve learned new languages before with groups of people, and I always noticed that the best learners were those who had no fear and spoke in the new language as much as possible, even if they made lots of mistakes. But those were groups of adults, so to see these children, who have already been extremely brave just to make it to the UK, explaining their opinions and preferences in class is very inspiring.
Read more about GFC on FT.com