Swindon school pupils have pledged to make their town a place of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers through a collaborative poetry project.
Thanks to funding from South Swindon Parish Council, Swindon City of Sanctuary were able to commission a poetry project involving 20 students from five local schools.
The project, 'Twenty Welcomes', sees 20 students across East Wichel Primary School, Drove Primary School, Lydiard Park Academy, The Commonweal School, and Royal Wootton Bassett Academy, explore the message of welcome ahead of the twentieth anniversary of Refugee Week.
Students worked over three days alongside the charity and local poet, Hilda Sheehan, to create a poem. As part of the project the process was captured and made into a short documentary, ending with the children performing the poem. The film was previewed on Tuesday at Swindon Arts Centre.
Swindon City of Sanctuary Trustee, Cristina Bennett, said: “The number of times we say ‘welcome’ is actually quite important, because that’s what this is all about.
“We all know how important it is that we want to feel part of our community, - wherever we are – and the word welcome means lots of things to all of us in our different ways.
“Hannah and I dreamed up this idea because we wanted to involve young people in the life of the town that they are living in and we thought what better way to do that than to think about linking Schools of Sanctuary with the idea of welcome.
"We are an incredibly diverse community here in Swindon, - there are over 120 languages spoken – and even amongst that small group of 20 young people there were 11 languages spoken across that group. We wanted to encourage young people from different language backgrounds to come together and work together because that’s shaping their future."
Four pupils - Joey Pugh, Catelyn Sinclair, Jumaima Abdul and Betty Peuvrel-Scannel - from the project attended the event. Speaking of what they learnt from the project Joey, 13, from The Commonweal School, said: "It was really fun, and we did lots of fun activities, – we learnt lots of things like literacy - and it really helped us to understand what it was like for refugees trying to come to the UK and how they’re affected."
Katlyn,12, from The Commonweal School, added: "All of us had never seen each other, so it was kind of a welcome for us to meet each other for the first time – it’s hard for so many people who have never met each other before to work together but I think we did it really successfully.
"We’re very privileged to live in this country where we’re all safe, whereas in other countries they are suffering daily and they struggle to get food and water."
The Mayor of Swindon, Junab Ali, also attended the event. The Mayor supports local charity The Harbour Project which supports refugees and asylum seekers moving into Swindon. He said: "I’m so proud to call myself a Swindonian. Swindon is hugely diverse – just look at me. I’m the son of an immigrant and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be Mayor of Swindon. But here I am, and that’s a testament to this town and the people of this town.
"I think the best way of fostering change, and the perspective of the way people look at refugees and immigrants, is the kids – they are the future.
"It’s not just about opening our doors, we need to open our hearts because in this world we just need more love and Swindon has plenty of that and that’s why I am really proud of Swindon – that’s why we’ve got City of Sanctuary and The Harbour Project here."
The school children are now looking to raise awareness of Swindon's growing refugee population within their schools and extend the cause to their families and local politicians. Royal Wootton Bassett will be screening the 'Twenty Welcomes' film to pupils during an assembly. Swindon City of Sanctuary hope that by involving local schools their message of welcome will extend to each generation within the Swindon community.
Swindon City of Sanctuary Development worker, Nicola Wood, said: "We’re part of a nationwide movement. Within Swindon we try to foster a culture of welcome, inclusion and support for everyone – with a focus on those seeking sanctuary.
"We run various projects, like our hosting scheme, and we also organise events like Refugee Week every year in June. We also like to raise awareness about the issues facing refugees and asylum seekers by talking about the facts and telling personal stories so we can put a human face to the statistics of the refugee crisis so that people can have open conversations and we can find out why people might be hostile.
"Sadly, I think there are many reasons why our communities are divided, – especially currently – and often there are those in our community who can be used as a scapegoat for our current issues. This is where we feel we need to campaign and raise awareness about those seeking sanctuary. More than ever I think that people need to feel welcome for all of us to feel a part of our community.
“I am always amazed at how socially, politically and environmentally aware young people are today, and we have so much to learn from each other – including those younger than us.”
Refugee Week will take place from 17 June to 23 June, and this year will focus on the theme ‘You, me and those who came before’ to explore how different generations have contributed to welcoming refugees and asylum seekers into the UK.
For further information about Swindon City of Sanctuary visit www.swindon.cityofsanctuary.org