Community Impact

Desperate to finish his studies, this Syrian refugee found community in a London school

When Omar Alfrough arrived in the UK he thought he’d never be able to continue his studies – until a Brent school opened its doors.

As a boy, Omar Alfrouh dreamed of coming to London to study science, but he is not one of those rare people whose childhood plans survive turbulent teenage years intact. As he approached what should have been the end of his school years, his goal had evolved to studying medicine at his country’s most prestigious university.

The chance never came. Omar fled Syria in 2016, just one of the 6.7 million refugees produced to date by the brutal civil war there, one of the 42% of globally displaced people who are children, and one of the tens of thousands who found their way to the UK – Harlesden, to be more specific.

By the time he was settled the following year with his family, things still looked bleak. “I had no hope at all when I came here. I had come to a country where I didn’t know how to speak, I didn’t know how to say my name. I didn’t have any help. I was scared,” Omar says. He was now over 18 too, which meant his hopes of finishing his education seemed remote.

A family friend, who knew the area well, suggested he try his luck at Newman Catholic College, a school five minutes down the road that had acquired a certain reputation in the community. Which is how he found himself sitting across from headteacher Danny Coyle in the latter’s office, having a conversation in a language he barely understood.

“Danny said ‘what’s your name?’. I said ‘I’m fine’. He said, ‘how old are you?’. I said ‘I’m okay’. He said ‘Omar, I believe in you’. And he invested in me.”

Newman already had a sizeable representation of refugees (about 10%), playing a full part in the life of a school that was already highly diverse, with nearly eight in ten speaking English as an additional language. It also wasn’t a stranger to allowing over-18s to complete education that had been disrupted by events in their home countries, with appropriate safeguarding.

To say the least, this isn’t the norm in Harlesden, or anywhere else. Many refugees struggle to get access to schooling. They are often moved to new schools at short notice, and are frequently excluded. Many are traumatised and fall victim to local gangs and organised criminals. Those who arrive unaccompanied by adults can lack the supportive structure of a home that is so critical to both education and development.

Newman hadn’t always been a welcoming environment. There had been decades of underperformance and budget deficits, alongside a reputation for out-of-control behaviour that precipitated a widely-publicised mass resignation of staff in 2000. But when Manchester-born Danny became head in 2013, he was determined to turn it around, and apply his philosophy of inclusion.

“In challenging times, it really is much easier to close doors on people than to keep them open. If you look at the statistics for exclusion, they’ve gone through the roof in this country, and they’re so often Black kids and kids with special educational needs. I said we’re not going to do this, and we don’t. We haven’t permanently excluded anyone in five years,” Danny says.

‘In challenging times, it really is much easier to close doors on people than to keep them open’

He noticed that the recent, substantial migration into the area included many refugee children in need of schooling, and that a lot of local schools were unwilling to take them. Knowing that Newman could do with the money and seeing the opportunity to live out the school’s ethos – ‘everyone counts, everyone contributes, everyone succeeds’ – he approached the local authority.

“We did a deal. We’ll take these kids, it’s in everyone’s interests. Since then it’s just gone from strength to strength. Over time, we’ve developed into a really successful model of how to include people into a humanist ethos, essentially, where we all care for each other,” Danny reflects.

“But it didn’t start with any great structure. It started with me basically saying, ‘Come in, come in, come in, there’s a classroom’.”

Good intentions, hard work

Refugee children are not a homogenous group. They have their own stories, their own strengths and interests and their own challenges. For some it’s a lack of formal education, meaning they’re so far behind it’s hard to catch up. For others, like Omar, it was the need to gain a mastery of English to progress.

In response, Danny and the team developed an alternative curriculum, running alongside the national curriculum. It gives refugees seven pathways based on their starting point, following an assessment that takes nearly two weeks, while keeping them integrated in the social life of the school.

“It took me six months to learn English before doing GCSEs. I passed with top results. They were so supportive, they did everything,” Omar says.

Danny counters that Omar deserves a bit more credit. “A lot of the immigrants were really up for work. They saw England as an opportunity to develop their education and life opportunities.”

In any case, Newman’s sophisticated structure of support – which now includes a full-time, non-teaching refugee coordinator and another for looked-after (unaccompanied) children – didn’t just materialise. It was the result of years of hard work by teachers, trial and error, learning and listening to pupils.

Sometimes it surfaces problems, ranging from difficult behaviour, helping pupils process and move past the trauma they have faced in their pasts, and even culture clashes. “We’re always thinking what will best assist them in their settlement in the UK, to be productive citizens in this country. A lot of PHSE [Personal, Health and Sex Education] classes will be on things like gay rights, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Some children come from backgrounds where there might be some resistance to progressive ideas, but we just crack on with it and have the debate. The curriculum’s developed over the years, you couldn’t just take it off the shelf,” Danny explains.

This willingness to tackle difficult issues has been key to helping to break down potential barriers between pupils, and to build a sense of community at the school – something for which it received considerable praise in its latest Ofsted inspection report, where it received an overall ‘Good’ rating.

‘Some children come from backgrounds where there might be some resistance to progressive ideas, but we just crack on with it and have the debate’

Danny points to the weekly Mass, which comes with the territory of being a Catholic school. “A lot of Muslim kids are against it, but we just sit down and talk about mutual respect. It’s a good investment of my time. I’ve been to the mosque on many occasions for different events, and no one expects you to pray to Jesus or take the Eucharist. But come along and let’s together try to understand some of the biggest things in each other’s lives.

“Just because we are inclusive, it doesn’t mean that difficult issues don’t occasionally present themselves. You just need the temperament and the character to sit down and work through these problems on a day-to-day basis, and find a middle way. It’s something we’re genuinely proud of,” Danny says.

Inclusion doesn’t end at the school gates

Perhaps slightly unusually, there’s a shipping container in the Newman Catholic College grounds, draped in a school banner. It was donated by the construction company Wates, who hoisted it over the school gates with a crane, to serve as a local food bank, which operates every Friday.

The need for the food bank is sadly going to increase as the cost of living crisis bites. But Newman is no stranger to feeding local families outside of school hours. During the first pandemic lockdown, for example, Danny’s initial concerns over getting children access to computers soon gave way to concerns over food, when the staff realised children were going hungry without school dinners.

Later, Newman lent its kitchen to the local mosque, to support them in their own efforts to support vulnerable people, and helping them to deliver food to homes using the school minibus.

“That wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t already know them, and our relationships in the community are even stronger because of the pandemic,” Danny says.

Deep involvement with the local community is very much part of the school’s philosophy, and a key component of the welcoming environment it attempts to create for all children to thrive. Newman is involved in a bevy of local campaigns from road safety to drug awareness zones to street lighting in parks.

The school is usually open for sports and cultural activities on weeknights and weekends, from Arabic and Filipino Sunday schools to car boot sales. There are two highly successful summer camps, one run by the police for all pupils, and one for refugees that’s now – Danny proudly tells me – run by the refugee pupils themselves.

“It’s a bit messy, but it’s always back in one piece again on a Monday morning. I don’t own the school, I’m just a steward here. When I drive from my house, I go past other schools in the holidays or on weekends, and there are bolts on the gates, and there are children walking up and down the street with nowhere to go.

“We give them somewhere to go. If that means a window gets broken occasionally or there’s a bit of vandalism in the toilets, we can live with that,” Danny says. “Society’s getting meaner and meaner. What we’re doing may be a drop in the ocean, but at least it’s our drop.”

This idea that a school’s inclusive role cannot end at the school gates is also why Newman provides English language, civics and financial literacy classes to the parents of refugees, to help them integrate. It’s based on the recognition that the children’s ability to participate and thrive in the classroom cannot be separated from their life outside of it.

Omar recalls a time in 2019, after he had finished his GCSEs, when he was in a distressed financial situation.

“Danny offered me some money and found me a job. I asked why he was doing this, and I’ll never forget what he told me. He said, ‘Omar, you have to give people what you did not receive’. He told me he knew what we were capable of, and that we just needed the right environment.

“That‘s what’s unique about Newman. The teachers actually care, on a personal level, on a family level, on a mental health level. They were more like a family than a school.”

Omar is now studying biomedical science at university in Manchester. He’s advancing at work, tutors kids for their GCSEs and A-levels, and volunteers on weekends to help the National Deaf Children’s Society. He’s also performed in plays at National Theatre, and had several poems published in anthologies.

For two years after leaving school he continued to have a weekly catch up with Danny, and they still regularly meet, as friends rather than headteacher and pupil.

Omar’s goals now are to have his own lab and his own education centre, where he hopes to take the ethos he learned at Newman out into the world. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here. They gave me hope, support and confidence to believe in myself. They gave me the fuel to drive myself. Without that, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

2 responses to “Desperate to finish his studies, this Syrian refugee found community in a London school

  1. This was an incredible read!

  2. Really interesting read!

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