A Voice for Young Europeans Today

Movement Profile

As the UK’s international cultural relations organisation, the British Council is strongly committed to equality, diversity and inclusion. Our work is centred on building meaningful, enduring and respectful relationships across different cultures. We cannot do this if we do not have a commitment to equality, inclusion and valuing diversity. We see the debate around ‘open Europe’ – maintaining trust, tolerance and intercultural dialogue at a time of international tension, particularly in relation to young people, as a key European concern.

This article draws on an example of what can be achieved through a creative approach to the issues of intercultural dialogue and inclusion, as well as supporting young people’s aspirations, regardless of their background, in Europe today.

…it was clear that the young people who have their own issues to deal with, with the most urgent social issues, were often the most tolerant.

The project New Young Europeans presents young people who have a unique contribution to make to their city, and who share dreams that transcend national and cultural boundaries. The project developed through conversations with the young residents of a Refugee Reception Centre (Le Petit Chateau) in Brussels in 2003, who felt that they had twice been denied a voice – first by being forced to leave their home country, and then again in Belgium. The goal was to have the project provide a backdrop, a template, for the young people who could then make the project relevant to their circumstances. The basic formula started in Brussels, involving a mix of refugee and local youth. The young refugees did not want this to be a ‘refugee’ project, but a ‘young people’ project. The non-refugee youth were usually from non-privileged backgrounds, many of them in care, victims of domestic violence, youth that would in short, be expected to feel they have a right to resist the arrival of refugee youth. Instead, it was clear that the young people who have their own issues to deal with, with the most urgent social issues, were often the most tolerant. What emerged from the exhibition is that both refugees and local youth wanted to communicate the same message: they wanted to be seen as individuals with dreams and ambitions.

Selected images from Helsinki, London and Cork – 3 of the 10 participating cities in the New Young Europeans project.

A participant in the project.

The project involved young asylum seekers and refugees together with young Europeans with legal status in Brussels, Cardiff, Cologne, Helsinki, Edinburgh, London, Cork, Rome, Madrid and Krakow. By collaborating with partners in each of the cities visited, the project shed light on the various issues of immigration of national importance but also of European importance. Most importantly, it offered a voice for adolescents who are so often ignored in this political debate. It offered them a creative voice through positive imaging, both visually and through texts. The project crossed borders between countries, subjects and people; and by bringing together a diverse range of people for an exhibition that included animated discussion and performances, we facilitated the sharing of new ideas and creativity all over Europe.

New Young Europeans was an artistic project, in cooperation with a writer, Penny Rae, and photographer Carl Cordonner, that culminated in a professionally curated exhibition in a public space. It engaged deeply with a diversity of young people from different backgrounds who formed lasting relationships with one another. The exhibition highlighted the lives of these young people in the context of the cities in which they lived; either as having been born in those cities, or as people who had come from different countries in search of safety and security. Their personal testimonies were exhibited alongside their portraits.

The project had a broad impact on the general public visiting the exhibition, and an accompanying film and publication documenting the event and its aims also had a significant effect, becoming a platform for educational purposes. The importance of having professional interviews and photographs throughout the project was one of the keys to its success.

The project gave the participants a sense of empowerment because they were in charge of what they said in their personal testimonies, and they also communicated with the photographer on how they wished to appear in their portraits.

The project consistently received positive feedback, and the young people involved have talked of the project changing their lives, their perceptions of each other and their desire to be part of a social change. Politicians, such as Ken Livingston, the former Mayor of London, spoke of the project as ‘a unique voice for those young people who deserved, more than anyone, to be heard’. The project gave the participants a sense of empowerment because they were in charge of what they said in their personal testimonies, and they also communicated with the photographer on how they wished to appear in their portraits. The curator displayed the life-sized portraits and texts in such a way that the visitor was confronted by the faces of the people whose voices they were reading, thus giving the impression of conversing with the person. The opening of the exhibition was a crucial occasion for the young people as it allowed them to retain ownership of the project, connecting it to their lives by making speeches, and conducting artistic and musical performances. At the opening event, the young participants introduced the politicians and VIPs and their feeling of accomplishment and increased self-esteem was palpable.

The evaluation of the project demonstrated that clear messages had been conveyed, for example, that a more balanced and honest awareness of the contributions young refugees arriving in Western Europe are making towards their host cities; the integrity and courage of many of the young asylum seekers and refugees who are trying to reconstruct their lives without parents, siblings or known securities; their intelligence and strength in learning languages of their host community, adapting to their host environment and living as valued and caring members of a new European community. The project served as a powerful reminder of the individuality of each of these young people, as well as their political awareness and socially responsible attitude towards their host countries.

Some comments on the event:

When I first saw Ibrahim, I didn’t know what to say to him and then we began to talk about football and music and the barriers came down easily enough.
IAN O’DONOGHUE, 20, from Ireland, Cork

Our school is a bit like a jungle. So many kinds of people, so much energy. Kids who are happy, kids who are depressed, kids who are from other countries, kids who only know Rome. It’s a microcosm of
the world!
PEPPE PERGOLA, 18, from Italy, Rome

I see Europe as progressive, political, cultural and social enterprise. I see Europe as a place in which we can overcome barriers that had previously caused conflict. Europe is about our similarities, yet it is also safe with our differences.
ZAHID NOOR, 26, from Wales, Cardiff

My dream is to become a nurse and help as many people as I can. My life is only important in that it is what I have, to help other people. I would try to be a very good nurse. It will be a way of saying thank you to this country.
MIMI NGUWU MBANGO, 17, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cardiff

Follow-on British Council projects have included the Migrant Integration Policy Index, Inclusion and Diversity in Education and Our Shared Europe. Our current programme of activity focuses on supporting the development of social enterprise through skills development for social entrepreneurs, policy dialogue and the sharing of experience and expertise from the UK sector, including Higher Education and Schools.

Julia Rawlins
March 2015

Photographs: Carl Cordonnier
Concept & Texts: Penny Rae