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School creates a safe space for Newham's migrant community

St. Helen's Catholic Primary School creates a safe space for Newham's migrant community

By Caroline Verdant

This story is an extract from 'Hungry For Change', a new book featuring case studies from schools' organising across Citizens UK. Edited by Dr Sebastien Chapleau. Download the full, free e-book and other publications here.

In the heart of Newham, St. Helen's Catholic Primary School has become a beacon of hope for migrant families, partnering with primary schools, Citizens UK, London Citizens and the Migrant Children’s Project at Coram Children’s Legal Centre to create the Schools Immigration Action Project. The project, initiated in October 2021, aimed to address the multifaceted challenges faced by families navigating the complex landscape of immigration.

The Schools Immigration Action Project

The Schools Immigration Action Project seeks to explore the impacts of immigration on families within the school environment, whilst fostering a safe space for open dialogue to enhance parent-child relationships.

The project has four key aims: helping families access quality immigration advice, equipping schools to understand immigration issues, building a team of empowered parents through community organizing, and providing models of best practices for other schools to learn from.

Partnering with CORAM legal services, the project provided invaluable free legal advice to parents facing the complexities of immigration. Many families within the school had previously fallen victim to the costs associated with immigration and encountered challenges due to language barriers. In response, immigration surgeries were established to offer comprehensive programs supporting immigrants in their integration process, covering cultural adaptation, legal assistance, and emotional well-being.

Leadership in action

Bode Adekanle, the Home School Liaison Teacher at St Helen’s Catholic Primary School, had first-hand knowledge of every family that comes into the school and the issues that they face, whether that be, for instance, housing or immigration.

Concerns about legal and financial aspects, as well as uncertainties about the future, contributed to the sensitivity of this topic, therefore when engaging in listening it took some time for people to fully ‘open up’. Thanks to the leadership of Bode, parents felt safe and confident to share their experiences, concerns, and perspectives on immigration issues.

The surgeries yielded significant outcomes, alleviating fear and anxiety, fostering community building, enabling better-informed decision-making, and empowering parents to engage politically. Parents actively participated in local elections, seeking out local officers, and engaging in discussions that affected them due to their immigration status.

Addressing emerging issues: A holistic approach

As the project progressed, the dedicated parent leaders identified another pressing issue – housing. Proactively reaching out to Cllr Shaban Mohammad, Cabinet member for Housing Services at Newham Council, parents invited him to a workshop and listen to their issues around housing, ranging from communication, damp and mould, repairs, anti-social behaviour and risk of homelessness through evictions. He responded very quickly and listened to all of the families. This was then followed by weekend meetings arranged with Bode at which Cllr Mohammad brought with him different officers from the various departments and parents were able to have their issues dealt with through 1:1 interviews with officers.

This has been a huge success, and the Council now wants to spread the workshops in other schools in Newham, to see how the Council can build better relationships with residents. Parents have also been invited to Council away days, where they can share their experiences in both immigration and housing to a wider audience. What this group now wants to do is raise awareness among others and let them know that they are not alone in terms of the issues they face. This is a testimony to how far they have come over the last two years.

A group of parents and children are celebrating at a Parent Action event.

Citizens UK brings communities together to win change, from local zebra-crossings to immigration reform and the real Living Wage. Get involved in campaigns in your local community.

Posted by Shazia Begum on 1 Feb, 2024