'Buddy' system aids school to ease pain of pupils in exile

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN one-third of pupils at the George Orwell School, north London, are refugees. Most turn up in the middle of term, unable to speak English. Many have faced war and death at an early age, their parents have been killed and their lives turned upside down, writes Glenda Cooper.

To cope with this, the school, which has 550 pupils aged 11 to 16, has an induction policy. New students are given a yellow card with information about themselves, their class and their timetable. There is someone to help those who do not speak English and lose their way, and each child is given a 'buddy' - a child speaking their language charged with looking after them.

'I think the first day was the worst,' Cecilia, from Bolivia, said. 'I was scared I wouldn't find my way around school. It was hard because I couldn't speak English and I didn't know what everyone was talking about. I thought they must all be talking about me.'

Chaltu, whose family was killed in the civil war in Ethiopia, said: 'Every night I would go home and pray to God I would learn more English. I couldn't speak to anyone and I couldn't understand. But we started ESL (English as a second language) in our first week and had two lessons a week.'

'You miss your friends in your country,' she added. 'It's very hard not to go back and see your home. They killed my dad and my brother. My uncle is dead, my cousin is dead. They would catch us if we went back because our family was in the newspapers.'

'We try to do most of our work alongside other pupils,' David Davies, head of the three ESL teachers in the school, said. 'We wanted to keep them in mainstream teaching, and work with the other teachers adapting subjects so bilingual students can understand.

'But it's very, very difficult only having three ESL teachers. Often you feel like you've got your back against the wall. There is not enough staff to cope with the kids' needs.'

The refugees here are highly motivated students: 'They are strong kids,' Caroline Lodge, the headteacher, said. 'They are not here to freeload but to make the most of themselves and then go back and help their country.'

Gulistan, a Kurd from Turkey, and Chaltu want to be lawyers. 'We know how it feels to suffer,' Chaltu said, 'and that is why we want to help other people.'

Most want to return. 'It is so different to here. Here there is peace everywhere and no political problems. My heart is in my country,' Gulistan said.

Ms Lodge sees the school as essential to the healing process. 'We need to have caring adults providing a good strong environment for them to work through their feelings. The school can be reassuring for these children who have had so much instability in their life, just to know the same teacher will be in the same place every day.'