This article was previously published on the Separated in Scotland website.
In the previous post we discussed conducting interviews with separated children and the professionals supporting them. On the 24th February we started another part of the study, art- based intervention workshops, and we have been busy since. As we near the end of these workshops, we are collecting young people’s artwork and preparing to share study outcomes during our 17th June Conference. In this post, we offer a peek behind the stage, and a preview of what these sessions were like for the young people, and us.
‘How to tell a story when you have no words?’
The idea behind the arts-based intervention was simple. We wanted to give young people an opportunity and tools to articulate their feelings about Covid, while developing their English skills. Thank to our project partner The Hands Up Project who ran the Remote Theatre part of the workshops and provided ESOL volunteer support, young people could explore many artistic platforms before they chose the one they wanted to pursue. We made sure there was a choice of creative outlets, and many ways to communicate: guided by young people’s preferences we created Storytelling workshops, run by Katrice Horsley, Painting with Malak Mattar, Photography with Paulina Czyż and Hip-Hop with Carl Guifo Guifo aka Amp Medley. In these groups, twelve young people embarked on their own storytelling journeys, and started building their personal stories of Covid life in a most engaging and emotive way.
- Athalo Carrão, ESOL volunteer based in Brazil, crossed the intergenerational gap and introduced a young person to ‘What a wonderful world’ (Louis Armstrong).
- ‘When I arrived in Scotland I could not eat anything – I was thinking, where was the rice?’ As young people learnt the secrets of storytelling through imaginative vocabulary some touching and funny details emerged.
- Researchers and young people taught each other how to say ‘hello’ in their respective languages. Do you know how to greet someone in Catalan, Kurdish Sorani and Polish? We do now.
Notes from Fieldwork
When we started, we were not quite sure what to expect, but soon discovered that this type of work requires a lot of complicated logistics and constant management. One of our artists was unwell after their Covid vaccine, another came down with Covid, yet another was caught up in the conflict in Gaza. With some young people and artists observing Ramadan, sessions were scheduled for later hours, and smaller groups were formed. Thanks to the HandsUp Project volunteers we were also able to provide ESOL support sessions for those who requested this; we also had interpreters on standby. Stefan, our colleague from the Scottish Guardianship Services facilitated communication, making sure all our arrangements were up-to-date. With Scotland opening and young people prioritizing their educational and legal matters we saw attendance drop, and some sessions had to be rescheduled, making the intervention longer than originally planned.
It is certainly true that relying exclusively on Zoom for work and socialising can become tedious and stressful. We had our share of turning up to the wrong meetings at the wrong time, last-minute cancellations and frantic calls when the recurring links did not seem to work. And although technology sometimes failed us, and varying English proficiency and multiple accents (ours as much as young people’s) increased the fear of misunderstandings, this way of working proved to be our biggest strength. Based in Brazil, Gaza, England, Scotland, Spain and Sweden, speaking with Polish, Greek and Arabic accents (just to name a few), we managed to link an unlikely group of people of different ages, cultures and abilities. As we attended Zoom sessions from our homes, the line between formality and informality became blurred: we were people from different walks of life trying to find positivity and common ground in difficult times. As the conflict in the Middle East had a direct impact on our work – with two of our artists living in Gaza – this was also a reminder that the foundation of peace can be found in building individual relations and friendships, one fragile link at a time.
Previous research shows that engaging in creative practices reduces stress, counteracts trauma and helps develop positive outlooks. Many experts on positive psychology, such as Dr Nicola Gibson, stress that being playful, creative and connected is the foundation of resilience found in Covid-19 success stories. The Post Traumatic Growth Inventory (Tadeschi & Calhousen 1996) lists willingness to express emotions, developing new interests and having a greater feeling of self-reliance as some indicators that positive growth has taken place. During the Alphabet Photography exercises young people were asked to think of a phrase that depicts their current mood: they chose ‘I feel more independent’ and ‘I feel better now. I am learning photography’. Much of the artwork revolved around shifting perspectives and looking at everyday surroundings in a different way: sometimes through using a different light or camera angle, sometimes through finding new symbolism in colours. We believe that our work facilitated growth, provided new opportunities and taught young people skills that not only entertained them during lockdown, but also will benefit them later in life.
At the Finish Line
On Monday 17th of May we gathered all the young people together again for a joint Remote Theatre session. On the stage of Zoom, young people and research team members acted out fun stories using movement and storytelling skills. We were impressed how much young people’s confidence and language skills improved, and how seemingly effortlessly some of them engaged in the storytelling exercise. When discussing unaccompanied migrant children and their experiences it is easy to focus on negativity – our own research brings certain institutional shortcomings to light. In this project, however, we witnessed considerable enthusiasm, humour and resilience: we decided to borrow the phrase of our colleague Prof. Ravi Kohli and ‘dwell in positivity’.