a guest blog post by Stefan Smith from our study partner the Scottish Guardianship Service
The Scottish Guardianship Service has been running for ten years and currently supports over 380 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people. Each young person is allocated a Guardian who understands the asylum process and is there to support them to attend and understand legal and home office appointments, plus assisting with all the various things that can come up in their lives. The Scottish Guardianship Service also offers mental health support and a befriending service with specialised staff in these areas. In my role, I help to organise participation activities for young people such as extra English language support, art, music and sport. Another key feature of the participation work is giving young people a platform to have their voices heard.
I was contacted by University of Stirling to coordinate the link between young people from Guardianship and the research team. The remit was to find twelve separated migrant children (aged eighteen or under) who would like to take part in interviews with a researcher. This was a bit of a challenge for me as I was brand new in the role and was yet to build relationships with the young people. However, I had started to get to know a few people from the English classes I was doing and through conversations with Guardians, I got names of a few people who could potentially be interested. The group ended up consisting of fourteen young people; three young women and eleven young men. The ages ranged from fifteen to eighteen and some had arrived during lockdown while others had been in Scotland for a longer period.
Connections and Divisions
Perhaps the first challenge that arose was the question of language and interpreters. In my experience there is sometimes a tension between the empowerment of communicating without an interpreter and the importance of understanding your rights, the questions you are being asked and having your views understood. I think this was well managed by the research team who provided translated information sheets to the participants and myself giving young people the option of an interpreter. The translated information sheets covered the important issues of consent and data protection. I often think interpreters can both connect and divide the two sides of a conversation. If we were to conduct these interviews again now, after the completion of the workshops, I feel as if many of the young people would prefer to do the interviews without the use of an interpreter. This is because of the improvement in their language, the confidence they have gained and the relationships they have built with the research team.
Listening, Talking, and Creating
When we began the interviews, we decided that there would be one researcher asking questions, one young person, an interpreter for those who wanted one and myself. On a personal level, I felt like I really benefitted from being present in the interview. Listening to young people talk about their experiences of lockdown gave me a really good understanding of how we could develop aspects of the Guardianship service. A theme regularly repeated by the young people was not getting enough English practice, some felt that they wanted more college hours to practise their English and others noted the lack of opportunities to chat with English speakers whilst cooped up in their flats. In addition to this, young people mentioned feeling isolated and alone in lockdown. This focussed me in developing more opportunities for English practice. Despite the limitations of online working, the additional English language support has proven to be successful; this largely came about from the valuable points raised by the young people in the interviews.
The next phase of the project involved inviting the young people to three group sessions where they could try out different activities. They did drawing, drama, rap, photography and storytelling. This was a challenge as the young people were all together but had varying levels of English. The drama and storytelling workshops were excellent examples of how this could be overcome. The physical and expressive communication bridged the verbal gap and clever use of the camera allowed the online format to become a tool rather than boundary. In an era of ‘Zoom fatigue’, it was a breath of fresh air as you felt drawn in by the words and movements of the artists, something young people echoed in their feedback.
Possibilities, Alternatives & Outcomes
Once the young people had chosen an artist to work with, there were small groups taking place throughout the week. This coincided with the easing of lockdown restrictions in Scotland so young people were becoming able to see friends again, start school and attend some appointments in person. Because of this, it was important that a level of flexibility was built into how we worked. Every artist and researcher were very accommodating and worked around the schedules of the young people. I passed on messages, tasks and feedback between the artists and young people which was exciting for me as I was starting to see the work coming together. It wasn’t until I received the two stories however, that I really got a sense of what they had created. I was gripped, listening to two young men I had got to know, talk confidently with their own unique styles and a real fluency. I was so impressed how they applied storytelling techniques yet kept their identities and natural manner.
The next moment where I saw things coming together, was when one young man came into our office to record his rap. His attitude was so professional and it was evident that he was a bit of a perfectionist. He wanted to get it right and was totally focussed on the recording. It was quite powerful listening to him record as his passion came through in the delivery. We were using our office but with a video call hooked up to AMP Medley in London. It was interesting to see how an online approach could effectively be blended with all the physical equipment and space where the recording took place. The young man took each comment or piece of guidance and applied it to his track, producing an amazing piece of music through a truly collaborative approach.
The Joys of Working Together
Throughout the workshops, the young people working on photography were sending me photos they had taken at home, applying the skills they had learnt in the sessions. But it was in the conference, seeing them put together that it really connected them. I could see the differences and parallels between their interpretations placed alongside one another. Each section of the photography captured a different element of the artform, and it was a joy to watch.
It was so clear that each young person gained something from the project. Some developed an interest in something new, others took a passion they already had and learnt the techniques and skills to produce something of a really high level. One young man spoke about how his confidence grew week on week and how by the end he felt far more relaxed about speaking English. This was a fundamental part of the effectiveness of the project, providing young people with tools, developing their language skills, building social connections but most of all, developing their confidence. Having something they have produced to look at or listen to with pride is invaluable.
By Stefan Smith