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 been fortunate enough to get to know the sixth formers in the Kennedy Club at St George’s College over the past half year, due to their weekly evening of board games and sports with a group of young displaced Afghans, and we knew already how open-hearted, generous and determined they are.
And of course they had it in hand from the start. Their guests were greeted on arrival by a huge and colourful poster of welcome, with messages witten in Arabic, Spanish, Kurdish, Russian, Ukrainian, Pashto and Farsi - it must have taken them hours. And of course it did wonders to break the ice. But so did the friendly hospitality which seems to come so naturally to them - within ten minutes the whole group were off on a scavenger hunt in teams around the grounds and looking as though they’d known each other forever.
This warmth between these two groups, with all their different life experiences and situations, continued for the 3 days. Volleyball was the definite hit of the week, and on court, any differences between them simply dissipated, leaving behind exactly what it should be - a group of teenagers, having a lot of fun.
I can’t remember a single moment when someone wasn’t laughing. Whether they were baking fairy cakes, doing some street art, trying out different sports, there was always loud, joyful laughter.
And nobody sat alone. Not once. Lunches and breaks were taken together - conversations about shopping and football, music and politics were all undertaken with real interest and respect.
For me, it was the Tuesday afternoon though.
On the hottest day of the year, somehow the St George’s team had managed to find two water slides. Half the group had never seen such a thing. One whispered to me that she didn’t think she’d be able to do it and asked “Is it allowed? Can I do it? ” reflecting experience in a part of the world where girls have less freedom. I looked up less than two minutes later to see her sprinting towards the slide, hand in hand with C from St Georges, with both girls screaming and hooting and they hurtled along on their stomachs.
That evening, K messaged from his hotel room. “THAT was the very best day of my life”. And then he added “I felt alive again. With friends”.
We’ve said this before our with Music Connects project, but the fact that older teenagers arriving in the UK are often unable to meet their peers in a safe and supported environment is a travesty. It leads to division, pure and simple - because even if this division does not necessarily breed hostility, it cannot lead to connected communities later down the line. To create opportunities for these young people to get to know each other with mutual trust, with appreciation of their different circumstances and with understanding of what brought them into their shared community is a very good thing. And it really isn’t difficult. Because they, better than any of us, know how to do it, and they, better than any of us, will get on and do it.
When I asked one member of the Kennedy Club what they felt they had done to make it such a success she looked surprised. “It’s not hard. They’re all so lovely. We’ve had the best time together. I’m not sure we had to “do” anything. We just got on with it, really.”.
We are so grateful to the team at St George’s College. To Jon Carr, for getting the ball rolling with his unflappable calm. To all the staff who gave up their days off to come and help. To the catering department for the fabulous meals and the welcome behind the serving dishes.
But most of all, of course, to the members of the Kennedy Club, and to those who have recently joined us here in Surrey - for your energy, your acceptance, your irrepressible enthusiasm and your ability to find joy in everything you did.
We learned so much, thanks to you.