Monday, 7 June 2010

A Child from Everywhere – a kaleidoscope of multicultural Britain

Alissa, Dominica Caroline Irby

Three years ago Khulan lived a nomadic life on the Mongolian steppe, sleeping in a yurt and herding sheepand camels; Mansury fled the war in Rwanda; Oumou had only seen a white person once in Mali…Now, they go to school in Leicester, Manchester and London.

Sibongile from South Africa says she got moody since living in the UK; Lukas dreams about Lithuania and misses his friends and his grandma; Amna from Bahrain feels happy and at home here: “People don't judge me, they're just accepting.”

In her new book, “A Child from Everywhere”, award-winning photographer Caroline Irby has interviewed and photographed a child from 185 countries living in the UK.

The children, aged from nought to 16, talk about their expectations of the UK, feelings upon arrival, cultural differences, ideas on community and family, and thoughts on their future, along with details on their everyday life. Their short, simple statements - sometimes thoughtful, sometimes moving or funny - paint a multi-layered picture of being an immigrant in the UK and the worlds they have left behind. Caroline’s pictures reflect that too. The 185 portraits are all very different - close up, in action, happy, reflective, casual, carefully composed, cropped, bright, tonal, inside, outdoors – each conveying strong feelings, each moving and incredibly beautiful.

I’ve worked with Caroline in Guinea, Haiti and elsewhere, and noticed how naturally drawn to children she is. “I tend to tell the story through the children I meet. I feel that they give the most sensitive, and maybe more accurate expression of what is happening in almost any given situation,” she says.

Caroline has photographed children all over the world, but found one of her most extraordinary stories right here. “The United Kingdom has long been a focus of immigration, but whereas in the past there have been concentrated influxes from isolated areas, we now have almost all the world converging on one place - we have an unprecedented demographic event unfolding right here.”

Of the estimated 565,000 migrants who arrive in the UK each year, 26,000 of them are children. The numbers are often analyzed in the media, but for every number there's a story. “There are stories dancing around in playgrounds across the country and they are seldom told,” she says. “I learned, from talking to all these children, that they rarely speak about where they have come from or what they've been through. And I think we should take the opportunity to ask and listen to them: we can learn a lot on the subject of globalization no less than any other.”

She was surprised that some of the children from war-torn countries were so uninformed about the situations they had left. “I soon realised, through talking to their parents, that this occurs because the parents want to protect their children from the past, want them to start a new life here and to integrate with children who have not experienced similar trauma.”

One of the most recurrent themes in the children's interviews was that they miss their grandmothers. “They miss their friends, their food, their animals and homes, but it was almost always the Grandmas they said they miss most - I'd say 90% of the children gave me that answer.”

I used to play with my Granny, and my Granny would teach me lessons about life: how to be careful because there was a war in my country. I was crying on my way into the airport: every time I turn my back, I feel like seeing my Grandma.

Israel, 10, Congo (DRC), Southampton

Another recurrent theme is the lack of community the children see in this country. In many of the countries they have come from they know their neighbours intimately, and depend on them. People look after each other.

In Lebanon the neighbours eat with each other: all the people is brothers and sisters. Here not all the neighbours speak with each other but there is something beautiful: people speak with you in a nice way. They can't be mad very fast. They don't fight, they are peaceful.

Rabie, 15, Lebanon, Leicester

“A Child From Everywhere” started as a commission from Guardian Weekend magazine to find a child from each of the 192 countries in the world (as recognized by the UN as sovereign states) now living in the UK. It took Caroline a year and a half to find 185 of them - through schools, GP surgeries, refugee groups, religious organizations, football teams, embassies and more. To meet them, she crisscrossed the country from Orkney Isles to the Isle of Wight and from Belfast to Cornwall - in the process, experiencing the hospitality of families from every continent. “I was given both a glimpse into the countries from which the children came and a 185-layered image of my own country.”

A Child from Everywhere is published by Black Dog Publishing. To order a copy of the book, click here or here

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