Yesterday I took some comics and a some simple activities to ‘integrate’ a brilliant group here in Folkestone working with refugee teens. I had been to the group a couple of times before when it was new, just as a helper, but since then it has grown massively. I didn’t do a head count but it felt as if saying 40 kids would be a low ball estimate.
During the day the young people at integrate are taught English along with some other key skills to help them get on at school and adjust to a new culture. But that teaching time is followed by a youth-club style session with craft, games and a shared meal. I joined for this portion of the evening and set up a table with my resources.
During the night I spoke to a dozen or so young people showed them some comics, and we had six pick up a pen and engage with the comics workshop more deeply. This session from my perspective was kind of a fact finding mission, I didn’t know what level of literacy I was likely to find or indeed what cultural yolk they had. I have gotten to know a few people from their community previously and I was aware that within that group there was a huge bredth of experience and backgrounds (that should have been more obvious than it is to many of us). And yet all are united by the horrific experience of persecution, violence and the extreme circumstances of their journey to the UK.
What I discovered was that when I spoke to some, they had experience of comics and we could speak from a shared frame of reference; but there were others who had either never seen a comic before or for whom the language barrier was so great that I had to work really hard to communicate.
From the experience I’d had with displaced migrants before I had assumed a certain level of cultural overlap that actually wasn’t always present. I spoke to one bright young man who knew cartoons and Tom and Jerry, so I explained comics by reverse engineering through cartoons. When he saw a page of comic panels he was at first overwhelmed, I had to cover the page and go through the story panel by panel to show how it should be read.
That is an interesting reminder about how so much of our experience of the world is codified by our cultural circumstance. And looking at pictures has certain rules and conventions just as languages do.
In the 1hour session we no one was brave enough to embark on a whole comic. But I was pleased to encourage one person who was not confident in her drawing, she ended up making a zine style picture book. I heard some stories that were profound and sobering and I snapped some pics of what two lads had drawn.
One drew a football and then packed in the drawing for the written word. Another drew a bicycle and then a bunch of flowers. These may seem like they are unconnected images. It might appear that perhaps they didn’t understand the task. But I will share with you what they shared with me.
You can see in the photo of the football that this young man’s name is Able. What you can’t see so well in the photo is that he says “when I was in my country, I like to play football. When I feel sad I play football.” As he drew he told Laura (another leader at the club) about how important football was to him because he plays when life is at its most difficult. I was taken aback by the level of self-awareness that shows. to recognise and use the fact that that football had role in keeping him level in times of difficulty. I was intrigued that when I had offered for him to use some blank squares to make his own comic and tell his own story he chose to represent a football. This object that was a comfort and anchor in his experience. It makes me wonder about the things I naturally draw without thinking. I don’t think anything so poignant could flow from my pen.
The other image. The young man that penned it was also thinking back to objects of home. A bicycle, or to be more accurate: this is a picture of what was once his bike. Then the flowers, representing a gift of the type he might give the girls at home. These drawings have the appearance of being random… And perhaps in a way they were just the images that spilled forth from these two lads when put on the spot to draw. But they are narrative, they are expressions of their stories.
What I find challenging is that with they’ve been through, they’ve chosen to preserve positive memories. Other members of the integrate group have told me the darker parts of their own stories before- stuff that would be exploitative to repeat here but easy for the reader to imagine. Tonight’s drawings show a different facet to that story. These drawings show a refusal to be defined by circumstance or policical status. And when I return to integrate next academic year as I hope to do I can’t wait to see those stories develop as I take some practical steps to make the activities more accessible:
These are a couple of those practical steps:
1. Provide some examples of comics without any words, no word balloons even
2. Develop a live drawing demonstration to help show what it is sometimes hard to say with the language barrier.
I won’t reveal my other ideas just yet for working alongside this project, but I’m looking forward to,the next opportunity.