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Hiraeth participant in radio studio

For five weeks over the summer of 2019, a group of Cambridgeshire teenagers took part in an experimental programme aimed at developing communication skills, building confidence and fostering a sense of belonging.

The project took its name from an ‘untranslatable’ Welsh word Hiraeth which conveys a deep longing for a home which you can never return to, or which perhaps never existed. Its closest English equivalent would be a profound nostalgia or sense of homesickness.

The choice couldn’t be more appropriate for an initiative which supports adolescents trying to carve out a new life in an unfamiliar culture having been forced to flee conflict zones including Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Eritrea.

The project is a collaboration between Cambridge Hub, a student-led social enterprise; researchers from the University’s Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics; Cambridgeshire County Council's Virtual School for Looked After Children; the Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign charity; and the community radio station Cambridge 105.

Seventeen participants, aged 12 to 19, signed up for Hiraeth’s programme of creative workshops including collaborative cooking, bicycle repair, map-making and several radio production sessions at Cambridge 105, all of which have culminated in the creation of a podcast and exhibition at The Museum of Cambridge

Hiraeth’s youngest members came to the UK with adult family members but some of the older teenagers are unaccompanied and tend to have less fluent English as a result. Project co-lead, Eleanor Chapman, a modern languages Cambridge graduate and former project officer at Cambridge Hub, sums up Hiraeth’s aims:

“A lot of the English language learning that these young people get is very grammar-based and formal, not very conversational.  At the same time, they often find themselves being asked about their harrowing backstories rather than being invited to speak about the things most teenagers want to chat about."

"We wanted to help them develop vocab and communication skills, but we didn’t want this to turn into an English language course. We were more interested in building confidence to speak as a way to foster a greater sense of belonging." - Eleanor Chapman

When Julianne Pigott, a ‘research impact facilitator’ for the University’s School of Arts and Humanities, heard about Eleanor’s initial plans she saw the potential for collaboration with Dr Brechtje Post, an expert in theoretical and applied linguistics.

Brechtje’s work focuses on examining how differences in sound affect how speech is interpreted. She is interested in how people process and learn speech, not least children with different language backgrounds. Since 2016, Brechtje has been working on an international research project – Multilingual Early Childhood Education and Care for Young Refugee Children (MyREF) –which has developed a toolkit to help practitioners and volunteers working with immigrant children to improve their language and communication skills.

“These children have often suffered trauma and they are trying to learn a new language in a variety of challenging circumstances,” Brechtje says.

“Our research has revealed major gaps in training in nursery schools and asylum seeker centres to support these young people. What we’ve come up with helps prepare professionals and volunteers for the many different scenarios they encounter and to offer personalised educational support.”

Brechtje and her colleagues have been evaluating the effectiveness of their toolkit and training programme in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. Hiraeth offered a valuable pilot opportunity involving an older group. Eventually they hope to roll out the toolkit to help many other groups of refugee children.

“What makes Hiraeth so special is that we are trying to help with language and social development, including integration, at the same time.” - Dr Brechtje Post

Crucially, the project encouraged a multilingual environment. “We made it really clear that we’d rather someone said something in their first language rather than say nothing,” Eleanor explains. “Together, we would then help translate or gently move the conversation into English.”

The dynamic varied in every session, one of which was a cookery workshop run with Cambridge Sustainable Food which offers services to promote healthy eating, tackle food poverty and cut waste.

This offered an opportunity to learn important food, kitchen and cookery vocabulary. “When someone was struggling, someone else would chip in with the English word,” Eleanor recalls. “There was a lovely moment when they were helping each other put a recipe together and shouting out ‘tomatoes’ and ‘lentils’ all at once.”

At the same time, the session offered crucial life skills, particularly for the unaccompanied boys, some of whom had never expected to cook for themselves, and had rarely seen men in the kitchen.

Another small-group workshop took place in a Cambridge bike shop where some of the teenagers were shown how to make repairs and exposed to more unfamiliar vocab in another busy, real-life scenario.

The majority of sessions were more reflective and focused on promoting conversation between the teenagers about their lives: past, present and future.

Eleanor was determined to explore the idea that people develop emotional connections to place and that geography shapes our relationships and experiences. She invited the group to draw maps of their new neighbourhoods from memory including as much detail as they could, but only of the places that were important to them.

The teenagers responded by plotting the locations of their new homes and friends, schools, favourite takeaways, parks and other places where they like to hang out. They were then encouraged to plot their first memory in Cambridge and places where they feel most safe, happy and at home.

All of these experiences fed into the project’s central activity, the production of a radio show in the studios of Cambridge 105. While many of the teenagers, especially the girls, were nervous at first, they increasingly found this a safe space in which they felt they could speak English into a microphone without worrying about how people might react to their mistakes and accents.

Speaking about this on air at the end of the project, Hend, a fourteen-year-old from Syria said: “I was really scared to talk in front of people so I found it really useful … because no-one’s seeing you but they're hearing you.”

Inspired by their cookery course, the group discussed which foods took them back to their early childhoods. And on another occasion they reflected on the importance of friendship.

“The radio show had to be what they wanted to say,” Eleanor explains. “Most of the time they didn’t want to share traumatic experiences, they preferred to chat about stuff like video games. And we encouraged that because it all helps to break down the stigma that if you're a refugee, that’s all you are, and the only thing you can speak about is your suffering."

As they spent more time in the studio, some of the older teenagers became remarkably open about their past experiences and expectations for the future. Hussein, a teenager from Iraq, shared that he stays in touch with a friend living in Jordan: “I said I can’t go back because I’m still studying, doing my future. But when I finish, I will go back to Jordan and see good friends. And I will go back to Iraq, my country, when it is safe. I will go first to see my family and friends.”

But many in the group are having to come to terms with the likelihood that they will never go back home. By the end of the programme, some of the teenagers from Syria had gained enough confidence to explain why they didn’t think a return would ever be possible.

“We just gave them a chance to be themselves and without even realising it their English was gradually improving at the same time.” - Eleanor Chapman

John Jordan-Hills works with Cambridgeshire County Council to champion the education of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. He explains that while they have managed to expand support with local schools and colleges, there remained a need to develop language and socialising skills outside of the classroom. Working with Cambridge Hub student volunteers, John runs a weekly homework club in the evenings as well as summer projects like Hiraeth.

“It’s so fantastic to see these young people flourishing and learning in a fun and supportive environment. These schemes are so important to the students I work with.”- John Jordan-Hills

At the end of the programme, the teenagers collected certificates at a suitably chatty graduation ceremony where their memory maps were also on display.

The project was supported by grants from the Arts and Humanities Impact Fund (University of Cambridge) and the Rayne Foundation.

The Museum of Cambridge exhibition ‘Hiraeth: The voices of young refugees and asylum seekers in Cambridgeshire’ runs from 4 Nov – 16 Dec 2019 

For more info about Hiraeth 

This article by Tom Almeroth-Williams is republished from Cambridge University Research News. Read the original article

What we do

Cambridge Language Sciences is an Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Our virtual network connects researchers from five schools across the university as well as other world-leading research institutions. Our aim is to strengthen research collaborations and knowledge transfer across disciplines in order to address large-scale multi-disciplinary research challenges relating to language research.