When you are stuck in an asylum hotel, with limited transport to local towns, and very little to do, the summer holiday period does not often represent fun, relaxation and the break from routine that it means to so many of us. Instead, this can be a time of boredom, isolation and therefore anxiety, loneliness and despair.
This is something Big Leaf tries to alleviate for all the young people we support, and we could not have been more delighted to receive an invitation from St George’s College in Weybridge: a three day summer activity camp for 18 young people living in a hotel, hosted by their ever brilliant Kennedy Club, and the wonderful team of supporting staff.
We have just returned from our second Music Connects residential, a weekend at Jamie's Farm in the hills of Herefordshire.
Music Connects is a project that brings young people from all backgrounds together to create an original piece of music. Half our participants have lived mostly or entirely in the UK and have English as a native language; half have been displaced from their homes and are starting new lives here.
We can't say it enough - this is not a project where one group is asked along to "help" the other. Indeed, we work very hard to take the division away as soon as possible. The challenge here is for everyone to find a way to use the different languages, life experiences and cultural backgrounds to come together and create a song with music, lyrics and instruments to reflect every person present. And bearing in mind that we had people from 8 very different countries this time, and with all the languages between them, that was no small feat.
The power of music to unite people over a backdrop of difference is no secret. And as one of our core aims at Big Leaf is to create bridges between communities who otherwise rarely meet, music as the channel for this seemed an obvious choice.
In March this year, we recorded our first song Remember Who You Are. The track was written and rehearsed on Zoom during lockdown by young musicians of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, all living in Surrey. Their talent, their willingness to embrace music of all styles and their courage to go beyond what was comfortable for them impressed us beyond words. 'Remember Who You Are' showed us just what can be done when you take a group of diverse young people and hand them the reins.
This October, building on this, we hosted our first Music Connects residential, in collaboration with our good friends at Surrey Arts.
In partnership with Djibril Ayofe and Chelsea FC Foundation, Big Leaf Foundation ran a three day football project called ISpeak Football in the October half-term.
Football is an essential part of Big Leaf’s provision. For the young people we work with, football is a chance to play, exercise, develop their skills and make new friends. It represents a common language with mutual understanding and respect between players. We have experienced the hugely positive effect that football can have on the well-being of our beneficiaries.
Big Leaf Foundation, in partnership with Surrey University, Lawyers Against Poverty and Surrey Police, ran a session for local displaced young people to increase their understanding of crime, legal process and law enforcement in the UK and build greater trust in the police by providing an opportunity to meet officers face to face in an informal, non-challenging setting.
Our core aim is to support displaced young people soon after their arrival in Surrey - to help them find confidence and hope in a safe, meaningful and happy future. We want to combat the social isolation that so many of these young people experience and create opportunities for them to build their own positive outcomes. Living safely is an integral part of this...
"Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand."
2020 presented many challenges, not least the increase in isolation for young people already very much alone. But it also brought opportunities and the chance to think creatively about how to respond to the ever-changing situation.
One of the challenges that often presents itself is how to connect displaced young people with their new community. Separate ESOL classes, and the lack of family networks makes it hard to find avenues to meet and mix with local people of the same age.
We had been mulling this over for a while with our friends and partners at Surrey Arts, and two points became quite clear. Firstly, music is a great connector and connection was something we all needed after months of lockdowns and distancing. And secondly, since music is a language by itself, maybe we could stop thinking about linguistic and cultural barriers and see these differences as a bridge instead.
And so we created a new songwriting project bringing displaced and local teenagers together through a series of online sessions, culminating in a recording day at the Academy for Contemporary Music in Guildford.
You can listen to the final song now on on iTunes, Spotify or SoundCloud or read on below to find out more about this project >
We’ve seen firsthand the impact of lockdown and COVID restrictions on young people trying to build a new life in the UK. The particular context of displacement means many have been disproportionately affected by the isolation and the lack of routine, exercise and meaningful face-to-face interactions with their peers and adults. Like most organisations working in this field, we have been especially concerned about increased reliance on online sources, and the long term impact on mental health of prolonged uncertainty and lack of hope.
The message from the team at Jamie’s Farm from the outset was that whatever happened, everyone would have a wonderful time. And yet, watching our group get off the coach on the first morning, bleary from the early start and hesitant about why they were there, we couldn’t be entirely sure it would be that easy. However, the team at Lewes are so adept at working with groups from all walks of life that camaraderie was built up in an instant and the sense of belonging to the team was embraced throughout. From the word go, there was no feeling of “them and us”, it was just “us”
It has long been our aim to run a summer school to counter the effects of the long summer break. Anyone who has ever been in language teaching over the academic year will notice the slide when students come back having spoken their own language for the best part of 3 months. If you are living alone, reliant on your own culture for friendship and support, it’s even harder...
Normally, at this time of year, we would be in the thick of things at Trill Farm. Our annual summer camp with Romy and our Trill family is a proper highlight, and the fact that this year coronavirus stopped any hope of us having a week away together caused heartfelt disappointment all round. We tried everything to make it possible, and it simply wasn’t.
One thing the pandemic has shown us however is that it is still possible to think fast, think creatively and get things done...
We joined Surrey Virtual School to take a group of displaced young people for a day at Jamie’s Farm in Lewes. The impact of increased isolation and confinement during lockdown was a real concern and this was a great opportunity to reconnect and be outside.
Jamie’s Farm is all about being a catalyst for change in the lives of disadvantaged young people, by providing a uniquely blended experience of farming, a sense of family and a therapeutic approach.
We immediately felt welcomed, accepted and calm. The staff are clearly skilled at building a rapport even without a common language and started a kick-about on one side of the lawn and a simultaneous game of cricket on the other, so when it was time to head off to the different activities, there was no trace of shyness from anyone.
The farm itself is beautiful and our young people mentioned time and again that they were reminded of home. “That tree… that field… the sheep…”, said with a smile, suggested the weaving of positive threads to the past.