Upfront: Black History Month

First appeared in Buzz magazine – October 2011.

October is Black History Month, and in Wales, all manner of events, exhibitions and discussions have been organised to celebrate and recognise the history of black people in Wales – which is said to date back to the 16th century – as well as the invaluable impact they have had in Welsh society throughout culture and industry.

Education is a big theme of the month-long programme of events which starts with the Centre For Lifelong Learning’s first instalment of its history course Black History: The International Struggle for Freedom on Tues 4 and Butetown History And Arts Centre hosting a history workshop Black History And The Concept of Development on Thurs 13 and 20.

Fri 14 Oct sees the All Wales African Community Centre deliver their Black History Month seminar Understanding Black History: Community Cohesion and Engaging With People of African Caribbean Heritage In Wales. The event will take place at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.

The arts also play a big part in the month’s celebrations, and in Llanelli, where friend of the South Wales miners, singer, civil rights campaigner and thorn in the side of the US authorities, Paul Robeson, will have his story told in a play called Call Mr Robeson: A Life With Songs at the Theatre Eli on Weds 5.

Radio Cardiff host a special gig at the Coal Exchange, Cardiff Bay on Thurs 6 with reggae stars Tarrus Riley and Janet Kaye performing. In the capital’s oath Library, the book launch of Kiskadee Girl by Maggie Harris – which is her memoir about growing up in Guyana – will take place on Mon 24.

In Swansea, the National Waterfront Museum hosts a free Black History Celebration Day on Sat 15 with at, crafts and performances from around the world. On Sat 29, the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, hosts the free grand finale event set to include a broad and diverse range of entertainers, performers and workshops.

When town meets gown, communities can flourish

First appeared on The Guardian Mortar Board blog on 19 September 2011

Students are an important part of any town, bringing skills and enthusiasm, says Amy Hall

Anyone who has lived in a university town or city will have heard – or maybe uttered themselves – “bloody students“, when being kept awake at night by midweek celebrations, or tripping over rubbish strewn across the pavement.

But there are many people around the UK who will be looking forward to the return of the students to their towns and cities as many community groups and projects get a boost in active members.

Bath Student Community Allotments was borne out of frustration from a group of students on long waiting lists for allotments. They wanted productive gardens but were only around for three years. Starting up in a space at the back of a pub, the group now has use of a plot at Bath City Farm. Members teamed up with the Growing Together project to match students and local residents with unused gardens, increasing their productivity and the relationship between students and other Bath residents.

Local campaign groups can also benefit from students, who often bring with them experience of activism in a student setting. As local anti-cuts groups spring up across the UK, many are taking advantage of their local student populations to strengthen their campaigns, and building on the popularity of campaigns around student fees and cuts to education.

One of these is the anti-cuts network based in Newcastle upon Tyne, which started meeting in January as a coalition between students and other members of the community. It has organised protests against tax havens and a day-long anti-cuts gathering with discussions and skill sharing workshops.

Many societies based in universities, and specifically for students, put a big emphasis on helping people in their local communities. The Cardiff University Student action for refugees (Star) group runs English conversation sessions at a weekly drop-in for refugees and asylum seekers, which in turn helps others to participate more fully in their local community.

Students are also big charity fundraisers, often through Raising and giving (Rag), making thousands of pounds for local, national and international charities. Bristol University’s Rag society has raised more than £40,000 for local charities, including a grant to a community group for yoga and meditation classes for children with severe learning difficulties and paying for a Wii fit for the residents of a retirement home. They raise money through events like ‘jailbreaks’ where teams have 36 hours to get as far away as they can without paying for public transport, bar crawls and a yearly street procession.

It’s not just from the goodness of their hearts that many students get involved with community projects; they are also facing an increasingly competitive jobs market and anything they can do to stand out from other graduates will be an advantage.

Students can bring life to their neighbourhoods and engage with their local communities. They also help the local economy as consumers and a workforce.

Relying on students can be frustrating for groups and projects which need commitment all year round, but when students and non-students work together it can benefit the whole community as different schedules and experiences complement each other.

As an example of the ‘big society’, when both sides of the town and gown divide work together towards community cohesion, life becomes a little easier for everyone.

Paving The Way For People With Disabilities In Lebanon

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on March 22 2011

The Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union’s mission is to promote dignity through equal opportunities and ensure the social and economic integration of people with disabilities in Lebanon. Amy Hall finds out more, and looks at one particularly inspiring case study; the story of 19 year old Naghem Hasha…

People are only ‘disabled’ because they are in situations that make it harder for them to do things than ‘able bodied people’. Lack of facilities, discrimination and little of understanding mean that people can miss out on education, employment and face social exclusion.

This is especially a problem in Lebanon where Christian Aid partner, the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union(LPHU), calculate 7% of the population have some kind of disability. Poverty can take many forms, and although in Lebanon things like life expectancy are high, many people are locked in poverty by laws and structural inequality. People with disabilities are often marginalised from public life.

Naghem Hasha is a 19 year old student and wheelchair user who is determined to prove negative perceptions wrong. Tabitha Ross, Christian Aid’s Middle East Communications officer, spoke to her on a recent trip to Lebanon.

“People look at you and treat you differently,” says Naghem. “If I cared what others say, I wouldn’t even leave my room. I can prove that I am more than my chair. It doesn’t matter what others say and think – what matters is what you say and think of yourself.”

It is partly this determination, and help from LPHU, which means that Naghem is now the first wheelchair user at her university. Young wheelchair users in Naghem’s home region of the Bekaa do not usually have the chance to study at local universities, but LPHU raised awareness at the university about inclusion and accessibility and Naghem now studies Business there.

“My friends from school who had disabilities did not go to university, even though I went to school in Beirut,” explains Naghem. “Some of them didn’t go because they had to live at home and they couldn’t find a course in their area; some had difficulties in getting accepted, or there was no disability access in the university. Some didn’t want to enter a world in which they would be different.”

However, Naghem has had no problems with discrimination at university and says she is treated like anyone else. She is cautiously hopeful about the future: “There’s still lots of barriers here to doing what you want. As much as I can, I liberate myself from my situation, so we’ll see what I am able to achieve.”

The Director of her university, Saad Hamzi, thinks Naghem’s future is bright. “She’s open and loves people and they love her back. She’s very active and has been getting good grades, especially in maths.”

It also seems Naghem’s pioneering spirit has paved the way for more local wheelchair users to be able to attend university. “Naghem has really opened the way for others, says Saad Hamzi. “She’s encouraged us to accept others like her case, or even more complicated cases.”

LPHU’s mission is ‘to promote dignity through equal opportunities and ensure the social and economic integration of people with disabilities’ – and it seems that for Naghem, they are well on the way to doing that.

Egypt’s Child Workers

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on March 22 2011

In the midst of the recent revolution in Egypt, Amy Hall takes a look at the on-ground rehabilitation work with Egypt’s next generation…

Egypt has become famous for its recent revolution, toppling one of the world’s longest serving presidents, Hosni Mubarak. Protesters were unhappy about their standard of living, the lack of accountability and transparency in society, and high levels of corruption.

Despite its high profile as a tourist destination, 20% of people in Egypt live below the poverty line and there are 2.7million child workers. Tabitha Ross, Christian Aid Communications Officer for the Middle East, visited Egypt last year and spoke to some of these children, working in limestone quarries.

13 year old Haytham Abdulazuz works at a quarry full time: “I didn’t like school because the teacher hit me and was always unpleasant to me. It’s better to work here and have some income for me and my family.”

Mina Said, now 15, left school at 13 but is now back in education thanks to help from Wadi el Nil, a Christian Aid partner organisation Christian Aid supports Wadi el Nil to train and empower adult quarry workers to claim their rights, such as the right to education for their children.

Mina said he suffered no violence at his previous school but the low quality of teaching meant he felt he was better off earning money for the family. “The subjects were difficult and there was not enough time and the teachers didn’t explain clearly so I felt lost.”

Mina now says he enjoys school and wants to stay in education; “If you don’t finish school, the only place for you is the quarry, and many men die there.”

Mina was keen to go back to school, partly after he broke his arm in an accident at the quarry where his family had to pay two thirds of the medical costs. However, he says he was nervous: “Sometimes they won’t take boys back if they’ve missed too much, but Wadi el Nil arranged with the school for us to go back, and made sure we could catch up by providing special classes. I really enjoy it with my friends, about 10 of us, who all came from the quarries.”

16 year old Issa Khalef Hana works in the quarry part time and goes to school hoping that his opportunities will increase if he finishes his education. He also says the owner of the quarry where he works treats his workers a lot better than others as he “covers the electric cables and doesn’t fire you if you have to take some days off, or have an accident.”

As Egypt works to build a more positive future it is hoped that less children like Issa and Haytham will have to risk their lives working in quarries and more, like Mina, will be able to go to school. This is the generation that will want a better Egypt for themselves and their families so their children won’t be spending their childhoods in quarries – and Christian Aid and Ctrl.Alt.Shift will be behind them all the way.