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Author: Coreen Sears

Last week I saw a film called 'Shadow in Baghdad', it was a film that pulled my heart strings. I was brought up in Manchester, both my parents spoke Arabic at home, both were from Baghdad. What struck me the most after I watched the film was how much I missed hearing that particular dialect of Arabic, the familiarity and warmth of the Middle Eastern people, the sense of security that came with it as well as a sense of longing and regret for a disappearing culture. As a child I understood everything my parents said in Arabic although I never spoke it, as a teenager I rejected the culture and felt it was alien in Manchester.

However, as an adult I realise what an important part of me it is, the Middle Eastern timekeeping (excepting for work), even my home decor which was noticed by an Iranian friend as highly Arabic in colour and taste although I was not aware of it and my fascination for Arab countries and culture. Yet my parents kept no signs of the Iraqi culture at home, my father's philosophy was when in Rome do as the Romans. However, they had many Iraqi friends, (people need the affinity with people from a familiar culture to them), we ate Iraqi food which although delicious I was discouraged from making it as it takes too long to make.

My parents left Iraq for fear of being killed, they left their homes and belongings and rebuilt their life. For this reason they rejected a large chunk of the Iraqi culture, as the country they lived in turned against them. The sadness felt by the community leaving Iraq was tremendous, they had a love for their country, as one Iraqi said, "I left Iraq but Iraq didn't leave me." Some stayed on as they did not want to leave their homeland only to be forced to leave several years later due to a new dictatorship. The culture, language and traditions are something to preserve, sadly in time they fade and become more diluted.

As a second generation child, I never lived in Baghdad, I never experienced the life there yet it is an intrinsic part of who I am. I don't look English, I sometimes feel rootless and desperately cling to elements of the lost culture. Interestingly, refugees are the only expatriates to reject their language due to the anger they feel against their country.

The challenges of relocated families are tremendous, the new culture is often unfamiliar and the different values can be alienating. Bringing up their children often without their immediate families for support and advice is often burdensome. The unfamiliarity of their new surroundings, a different language, different climate and way of life can cause a lot of stress. This is important to remember as when we welcome new EAL children to the school it is important to welcome their parents, value their culture and help them feel part of the school community.

I still remember the embarrassment I felt in primary school when the teacher asked me when my parents were from and I said Baghdad. She thought I was making it up and I had to get my brother in a higher grade to prove it. It is so important to value not only the child's culture but the whole families, we cannot expect them to be like the people from the host country but must embrace their differences and value them for who they are not for who we think they should be. It is a basic human right to express oneself freely. Furthermore, by taking a holistic approach and embracing the whole child we can make them feel proud of who they are, comfortable with their differences and more settled in their new environment which is the key to success.

Five Tips for Celebrating Differences

Celebrate the national/special day for each culture, parents could be involved in making a special assembly including dance, music, food and a presentation. With the holiday period coming up it would be an ideal time to ask parents and children to do a class/school assembly on their festival. They could bring in food, do arts and crafts, introduce special expressions/ greetings and songs in their home language connected to that festival as well as explain any customs.

Encourage parents and children to share aspects of their culture that connect to the topics covered in school. Encourage connections at all times as it validates their culture. A 'My Country' page could be displayed in classrooms and around the school. Aspects such as national holidays, foods-maybe special recipes, places to visit, language, customs including visual displays. Look at world history and celebrate national holidays for students from around the world. Celebrate differences, share cultures whenever appropriate. It will encourage tolerance and understanding as prejudice is based on ignorance and stereotypes. By eradicating prejudice a better world would be made based on valuing differences, learning from others and appreciating who they are and where they come from.

It wasn't until I worked in an international school that I felt it was OK to be different and be free to say who you are without being judged. It is crucial to create a safe haven where each child feels free to express who they are and where they are from and feel valued because of their differences not in spite of them.

Further learning - Blog

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