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Muslims, Migrants & Me – the challenges for schools in Wales

Rocio Cifuentes Pic SeneddWhen I was growing up in Swansea in the 1980’s there weren’t any other brown people in my class, and when I went to comp, only a handful in the whole school. People raise their eyebrows when I say ‘brown’ people now, but I think it is a more accurate way to talk about people who are not ‘white’. Maybe we should say ‘ethnic minorities’ or ‘minority ethnic’ people, but what we mean is people whose skin primarily and other physical features like their hair, eyes or nose distinguish them as being people who come from somewhere else. Others may have had a different experience, but for me, apart from having a hard to pronounce name, having to explain where I was ‘from’, and my parents having a strong foreign accent, not much else was different in my experience or in the way I was treated in school or in Wales. ( I was also a refugee, but that didn’t seem such a big deal either then).

Today, I fear that things are very different, and sadly, much worse than they were then. Today I am Director of EYST Wales the Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales which is a Wales-wide charity supporting ethnic minority young people, families and individuals in Wales. The charity employs around 35 staff who have frontline contact with children and young people from minority ethnic backgrounds – and who are facing increasing hostility because of their skin colour, because of their religion, because of the language their parents speak, or because they are ‘not from here’.

Racism and its newest sideline Islamophobia has been increasing in Wales probably since the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and the 7/7 attacks in London, after which the ensuing ‘War on Terror’ became effectively a ‘War on Islam’ with Muslims becoming public enemy number one characterised in popular discourse as a ‘threat to our way of life’. For anyone under the age of 18 – the post 9/11 reality is all that they have ever known.

Therefore, it is not surprising that we are hearing Muslim children telling us that from a young age, they have been called ‘terrorists’ ‘Osama bin Laden’ ‘Pakis’ ‘suicide bombers’, been spat at, had their headscarves pulled, or been ostracised in playgrounds. And that this has got much worse in the aftermath of a terrorist attack whether in the UK or another country. What is surprising is the lack of support they have reported having in schools. One secondary age child told us that their school teacher had told the class to be careful as the terrorists might target their school next – this had made the whole class scared and the Muslim children in the class feel very uncomfortable.

It is completely obvious but sadly necessary to keep repeating that just because one Muslim commits a terrible crime it does not make the 2 million plus other Muslims living in the UK potential criminals, most especially not children.

More recently, following the Brexit vote the challenges have widened, and it is not just people of a different race or religion who are being singled out as different and not welcomed – it is now people who came here legally from Poland, Romania, Germany, Spain and other EU countries. Children and young people with a different accent or difference surname have been targeted and asked when are they going home. For children who have only ever known Wales as their home, this is unsettling, frightening and uncalled for.

Why is this our current reality? Why do so many people think that there are ‘too many’ people ‘coming over here’ when the reality is that Wales, like any other country is made up of layer upon layer of people who have migrated and settled here from all over the globe - from Italy, Somalia, Poland and Bangladesh - and is the richer for it. And migration works both ways – there is a history of Welsh migration to Patagonia, Spain, Australia, America, some of it violent and bloody. Yet most of us assume we have the right to ‘travel’ (not ‘migrate’) to whichever country we wish to, and even stay there if we want to – we’ll just become expats then.

For schools and educators, helping pupils to understand and learn the facts and history about race, refugees, migration and Muslims is one of the biggest challenges and opportunities they have, and yet it seems that pupils are not taught much about these topics currently. In EYST we regularly go into schools to deliver lessons on these topics and they are usually delivered by EYST staff who are diverse and include brown people, Muslims, refugees, etc. It is this face to face experience of meeting and talking to people from these groups which has the most impact on their attitudes and understanding. The new school curriculum designed by Donaldson aspires to helping pupils in Wales become ‘ethical informed citizens of Wales and the world’. To achieve this ambition, schools need to ensure they are giving their pupils the right information, tools and messages to respect the humanity and human rights of their fellow class mates regardless of their race, religion, language, or place of birth. In a post-Brexit, post-Trump era, it is more important than ever that we all take up this challenge, for if we tolerate this then who knows what will be next?

Rocio Cifuentes
EYST Wales Director

Rocio Cifuentes is the Chilean-born daughter of political refugees from Chile, who settled in Swansea in 1977. Schooled in Swansea, she went on to attend Cambridge University, from where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Social and Political Science.

EYST is a leading organisation promoting community integration and community cohesion and since 2017, EYST has been Welsh Government’s appointed lead body for race.

She is currently studying part-time for a PhD in young people and far-right Extremism at Swansea University.