For the third year, Newman Catholic College (NCC) has organised and hosted the Syria Summer Camp (SSC). The idea for the camp grew out of the recognition that many of the Syrian children who arrived at NCC had not only missed a significant part of their education but were incredibly aspirational and determined to make a success of what the UK school system could offer. Amanda Wooster, Director of the SSC, explains.
Born out of a passion to make a difference to the wellbeing of locally arrived refugee children and their families, Syria Summer Camp is a Love in Action project supported both practically and financially by Caritas Westminster. Its aims are simple: to provide both a home of learning and a sanctuary of love.
NCC funds its resident Refugee Project Leader and provides its site, including caretaking, free to Syria Summer Camp. A budget of close to £20,000 is raised through external fundraising to meet other salary costs, resources, trips, food and publicity. A small family contribution is encouraged from those registering for the camp.
A full leadership team is recruited and appointed, including specialist anchor teachers and, this year, both a Logistics Coordinator and Wellbeing Coordinator. Also new this summer was the employment of support staff from the local Syrian and Afghan refugee communities. Two of the mothers put themselves forward to be trained as Registration Security Officers and doubled as cleaners at the days' end. One father had catering experience and became our highly treasured resident chef. This sent a powerful message of inclusion and empowerment to the local communities and demonstrated our desire and joy in welcoming whole families to be part of Syria Summer Camp.
Priority for a place at Syria Summer Camp (we have 70 places) is given to refugee children, primarily from the Middle East, who have fled their homeland due to war or persecution. This summer, four of the families who attended had only been in the UK for a matter of weeks, all arrived from Syria. Some of the children were introduced by other relatives already established locally. Some were referred to us by Brent Council.
The wellbeing of the children attending the camp was a real focus this year. Our theme, 'an act of kindness', was trialled by Syria Saturday Club attendees (an offshoot of last year's camp). An evaluation framework was built for the camp by the first and longest running children's charity and our lead mental health provider, Coram. Every child was given a wellbeing journal entitled 'I'm happy, I'm healthy, I'm hope-filled', and time set aside at start and close of day for reflections and evidence around the theme of kindness. In addition, investment was made this year in the wellbeing of staff and volunteers with a weekly reflection and self-care session, facilitated by a therapist from Coram Creative Therapies.
As with last year, access to counselling and other therapeutic support was prioritised for the children, many of whom were dealing with the trauma of separation and loss. 'Time In' sessions were offered weekly with an art therapist or clinical psychologist from Coram, with the school's chapel being turned into the Relaxing Room (a name chosen by the children). Children were chuffed to be given a pass (similar to a cinema ticket) and became adept at rating their own wellbeing level, before and after a visit to the Relaxing Room, which became a safe place where they could learn to be still. Children gained insight into when they needed to calm down and booked their own 'Time In'.
For ease of organisation and to keep our little children safe, trips came to the school in the form of a mobile petting zoo and two Kew gardeners. Animal Magic brought squeals of delight as tiny tots saw rabbits and guinea pigs for the first time in their lives. They were able to have their photo taken with a baby owl; it was difficult to tell who was the most terrified! Tortoises survived being trampled underfoot but the miniature hedgehogs hid from the clamour of a class of four-year-olds! Learning to be kind to animals was clearly a work in progress.
Suddenly one day the front of the school became a riot of colour and compost as the Kew gardener and his mate unloaded ton loads of bedding plants, turf and pretty stones. Most of our children have experienced wide open spaces, shrub land, woods and abundant fresh air, although few have had a garden of their own in a traditional sense. Through the generosity of the Kew gardener, each child at camp was able to develop a unique garden to take home, their faces shining with pride. It was a healthy way to recapture memories of the nature of their Syrian homeland.
This year Syria Summer Camp invited children between the ages of 4 and 14 to register. With the appointment of a primary anchor teacher we were able to open a Reception class for the first time. We welcomed whole families to learn, play and grow together. For some this meant as many as six siblings attended. For others, mum stayed where a child couldn't yet be separated and both learnt in contentment side by side for the four weeks.
Previously we had embraced 14- to 18-year-olds, but this year we entered a partnership with Springboard Youth Academy to provide for our older age group instead. Ten places on the Springboard programme were made available to Newman students and Syria Summer Camp's site management and cleaning team were provided in return.
To learn more about this marvellous project, visit the Newman Catholic College website at www.ncc.brent.sch.uk