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Community engagement

Our staff and students are involved in many projects, both here in east London and further afield. They're helping to influence and shape the future of our communities in ways that make a significant difference to people’s lives.  

Educating children fleeing conflict

Dr Kathryn Kraft, a lecturer in International Development conducted a week-long trip to camps and host communities in Northern Iraq as part of a fact-finding mission on behalf of Served – a new Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) focused on bringing local Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches and education providers together for the benefit of children in conflict zones. 

Dr Kraft, who was appointed as Served’s Head of Research, along with research consultant and legal advisor Suzanne Noukahoua, have been looking into how Served can partner with global Christian satellite TV station Sat-7 to deliver teacher training and essential literacy and numeracy to displaced people arriving in the region.   

She recounted stories told to her by parents she met in refugee camps, which are currently home to up to 1,800 families, and during visits to internally displaced Iraqis living in host communities. Dr Kraft said, 'Mothers and fathers would tell me how they fled Daesh (ISIS) at night, often being given 24 hours’ notice to escape or face the real threat of enslavement and death.' Some of the most heart-breaking stories were from Yadizi families, who are often singled out for torture and execution.

'They lack the international network of moral and material support that the Christians have,' said Dr Kraft. 'It seems that fewer than half of the Yazidi children are attending school, and many are living in sub-standard shelters.'

Dr Kraft explained that the first thing parents wanted for their children was education: 'In the Middle East there is a strong desire to provide a good future for their children, especially through education. Children might lose a few months of schooling, but to lose years of schooling is like losing a generation, and risking the next generation succumbing to extremism.'

Despite being forced to take refuge in semi-finished buildings with little or no water or electricity, Dr Kraft said parents and young children were still eager to learn. 'The demand is huge,' she said. 'There are schools operating three shifts a day, with classes of 50 to 250 children, but they do not have the resources and one-to-one support they need at the moment.' 

Dr Kraft said that another effect of the rise of Daesh in the region was the divisions that had been sown between Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Yazidi communities, who had previously lived and studied peacefully alongside each other. 

'One teacher I spoke to explained how trust had broken down,' said Dr Kraft. 'Once Daesh arrived, things changed. Neighbours, perhaps out of fear, would side with Daesh and turn on their neighbours whom they had known for years. One teacher told me, "After my neighbours turned on me, how can I trust anymore? But I know the ability to trust is something inside my heart/I nurture it and teach that to my students".' 
 
Dr Kraft said she remained hopeful that the contributions of NGOs such as Served and the services of Sat-7 would bring about a better and more peaceful future for the youth of Iraq through improved quality of education and alternative forms of education such as training of faith-based networks and educational Satellite television.

'University for all' – teaching in the 'Jungle'

Led Dr Corrine Squire, UEL's Centre for Narrative Research is teaching a short university course on ‘Life Stories’ with residents at the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, in 2015-2016. This ‘University for all’ project is supported by UEL’s civic engagement strategic fund. Teaching involves photography, art and poetry workshops, in addition to life story work. Camp residents are involved with organising and conducting the initiatives, as well as participating as students.

‘University for all’ exemplifies many educators’ and students’ convictions that university education should be open to all, regardless of their resources, and across all national and social contexts – including those where people do not have full or any citizenship rights.

In the courses, participants are reading life stories (for instance, those of Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, as well as Malala Yousafzai), discussing fictional and critical representations of stories (Sam Selvon, Chiminanda Adichie), examining poetic (JJ Bola, Mahmoud Darwish), photographic, and filmic representations of lives, and thinking about theories of good lives (Plato, ‘The Republic’). This work involves both substantive discussion, and development of English skills. Students are also creating written, oral and visual life stories of their own.

Students currently enrolled come from a range of countries – Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea. Many are professionals – electrical engineers, opticians – or university students or graduates in a range of subjects from English literature through political science to physics. All are keen to further their education. Many students are using the course as a ‘gateway’ to other educational possibilities.

There are around 4000 people now living in this camp, with few facilities, as the camp is informal, with the exception of a fenced container area and a small French government facility for women and children, and recent demolitions have hampered the work of volunteer associations. Many residents with English skills and often, family connections to the UK, or histories working with UK or allied military forces, have been trying to reach that country. The residents include several hundred unaccompanied minors, a number of whom have family in the UK. Currently, legal initiatives to allow safe passage for such residents to the UK are highly complex and drawn out. Efforts to reach the UK by road or rail are heavily policed and highly dangerous, all along the northern French coast. There is no clear political commitment from France or the UK to resolve the situation, except by closing the camp and requiring all residents to seek asylum in France. The lack of food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, and healthcare in the camp continues to make the residents’ difficult lives there a human rights issue. Education is, of course, an important human right.

Money Champions

The University of East London has joined forces with local financial advice organisations to help their students avoid getting sucked into debt.

For young students, going to university is often the first time they have lived away from home, and the first time they have had to manage their own finances. To help promote financial literacy among its undergraduates UEL, in conjunction with Money A&E and Citizens UK, is promoting the Money Champions scheme. Students who volunteer will be trained as money mentors with the aim that they will be able to offer support and financial advice to other undergraduates, who may be reluctant or embarrassed to discuss their money worries with a professional. The research report can be read here.

One of the promoters of the scheme within the university is Dr Tim Hall, of the School of Social Sciences: 'UEL sets great store in supporting students to manage their money wisely. This is particularly important given the ubiquitous nature of predatory lending today. The beauty of the Money Champions programme is that it enables students to share the skills they have acquired with each other and take them back to their communities.'

In addition to recruiting Money Champions, the Student Money Advice and Rights Team (SMART) held a series of events to help students manage their money during National Money Awareness Week (February 9 to 13). Resources included information on various aspects of finance and budgeting; a full financial MOT; a chance to win the contents of shopping baskets; top money saving-tips and advice on healthy eating on a budget.

The scheme was nominated for a Times Higher Education Award.

The Impossible Choice

In 2014 Dr Bethany Morgan Brett, Senior Lecturer in Psychosocial Studies was awarded a £10,000 UEL Early Career Accelerator Grant, which enabled her to consolidate four of her most recent qualitative and literature based research projects related to the theme of parental care. Witnessing a parent’s ageing process and the associated dilemmas of a parent transitioning into care often cause adult children enormous emotional turmoil.

Bethnay started The Impossible Choice Project to highlight the psychosocial dilemmas faced by adult children in relation to their older parents. It considers what practical, emotional and psychical effects the witnessing of increasing agedness and death of parents has on adult children in relation to their older parents. It considers what practical, emotional and psychical effects the witnessing of increasing agedness and death of parents has on adult children. How are these intergenerational relationships negotiated during these later phases of the life course? What are the implications of these changes and transitions for wellbeing in family relationships? Finally how can care provision for older people be improved in order to support not only those in the older generations but also those in the adult child generation who are caring for them?

The aim of her research is to encourage more adult child relatives to visit their parents in care homes and to maintain a continuing relationship beyond the transition. Bethany has found through her research that more visitors there are to care homes the greater the transparency of care practice, which in turn can improve the reputations of care homes. There is a need to move away from increasing regulations and intrusive governance, the blame culture on care homes, and from stifling and restrictive risk adverse practice, to making care homes a more supportive and open environment for all.

She’s believe that facilitating effective intergenerational contact is one solution to improving care practice. By enabling a more active, participatory and supportive role for relatives, it could make visiting far more enjoyable and give relatives the confidence that their relationship with parents, although changed, can still flourish and be fulfilling.