Project helps community cohesion in Calderdale

Children from Warley Rd school perform their 'Sun Dance' at the celebration at Square Chapel Arts
Children from Warley Rd school perform their 'Sun Dance' at the celebration at Square Chapel Arts

A project designed to improve integration in Calderdale has helped bring local schoolchildren face-to-face with elders of the Pakistani community.

Verd De Gris, a not-for-profit company based in Hebden Bridge run by Sharon Marsden and Jeff Turner, have been working on their The Things We Leave Behind scheme for the last four years.

It has organised visits to local schools by elderly members of Halifax’s Pakistani community.

Working with elders from the British Muslim Association and the Asian Women’s Resource Centre, pupils took part in music, poetry, dance, art and storytelling in the classroom.

Jeff ran similar integration projects in Liverpool working with different communities in the North West.

He has been based in Calderdale for the last 15 years and has successfully transferred the idea here.

“I used to drive through Park Ward but knew nothing about that community,” he says. “I wanted to find out more about the people who lived there.

“It’s about integrating different communities across Calderdale and promoting the positive aspects of different backgrounds and cultures.

“We’ve done projects to help develop an understanding of migration, the history and development of that community and how it established itself here.

“Most of those schools have got kids from eastern Europe so it’s given everybody a greater appreciation of them too.

“People have always migrated, travelling from place to place, from one country to settle somewhere a long way from home.

“But why do people move? What is it that makes them give up everything and set off for a new life far away? Is it work, the chance of a better life or a brighter future for their children?

“We asked the children to create their own poems and art work that fused their feeling of empathy for the elders’ thoughts and feelings about their home, family and sense of place.

“We worked with local dancer and choreographer Natalie Speake to create dances with the children that capture something of the atmosphere, environment and landscape of rural Pakistan. The dances evoked some strong feelings of migration.

“The elders, some of whom have been here for over 50 years, expressed a belief in the power of this work to help change perceptions, help break down barriers and build tolerance and understanding.

“It involved creative exercises to get them to empathise with the journeys the elders have made and teaching the children about the smells and sounds of where the elders grew up.

“It’s been an amazing experience.”

Five per cent of the population of Calderdale is of Pakistani origin, compared to two per cent nationally.

Jeff admits some ethnic minority communities can feel isolated but has been pleased with the elders’ response to the project.

“I think communities can be quite reluctant to mix with each other,” he says.

“There are pockets where people don’t travel out of their own community either because they are cut off by not having transport or perhaps they are frightened to venture somewhere they’re not familiar with.

“We’ve been working with the elders for about four years to get them to come into the schools - they showed a lot of courage.

“I think they were shocked just how interested and excited the kids were to meet them and know more about them. They were completely blown away by it.”

Jeff says he hopes the scheme has helped to dispel some of the myths and misinformation that has built up around ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims, especially among the younger generation.

He said: “There’s been so much negative press related to the Muslim community in general.

“But the reality is completely at odds with the national picture of fear that’s been generated.

“I think it’s given the children a greater appreciation of people with different clothes and different colour skin.

“Hopefully there’s a great deal more understanding and respect because of it.

“When they go past someone in the street they perhaps always thought of as being different they’ll now feel more of a connection and an understanding with them.”