REFUGEE. What does the word mean to you? Fellow equals who need aid to take refuge from war, persecution and disaster? Or lazy freeloaders for a more comfortable life?

In June 2003 we spent a week at the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) to report on an event bringing together young people from all over the world who have interest in the arts. Not just any young people, but young people from war torn countries such as Palestine and Sierra Leone – places we only have read about in the news.

We spent four days on location filming young people from all over the world devise a public debate: The Rights and Roles of Young People as Artmakers. They gave us their honest stories of the struggles of survival every day, and how art can make a difference in the most difficult circumstances. Our experience changed our views of refugees and ultimately led us to challenge our own friends too.

These stories cannot be ignored by young people in Britain

From our point of view the fact that these young people even managed to participate in LIFT was an astonishing achievement in itself. However, for these unfazed teenagers it was not so much an achievement but simply an imperative, allowing them to express themselves through their love of art.

Listening to story after story of loss and bereavement we suddenly felt so rich, realising that the tantrums we have over wanting the latest pair of Nike trainers, or getting angry over a little comment someone has made to us was nothing compared  to the tales we were hearing from them. “I was a child soldier” 17 year old Osman told us. It hit home that compared to most of the people we met, our lives were so safe, something we had never thought about before.

“These stories cannot be ignored by young people in Britain. If they are, ignorance and prejudice will simply grow among British Children in direct proportion to the problems of repression, subjugation and political conflict faced by our peers all over the world.”

Throughout the week, we realised that it wasn’t because these young people had tough lives that they came to LIFT but their mutual love of arts. This loved helped bring together cultures and countries that in the past have come up against each other in conflict, or been torn apart by civil war, sometimes from places where Great Britain has responsibility in causing the strife. These young people came together not to talk about trauma though but to perform together as one arts loving community.

I don’t really know a lot about refugees but I hear about how too many of them are coming in to this country illegally. I don’t always think it’s their fault though because some of them have to escape their own countries

Some of the friends we made were refugees, and although meeting them helped us to understand what this word means in a way we never had before, trying to explain an experience that affected us so much to someone that wasn’t there was hard, harder even listening to some of the stories about war and conflict from young people our age who have experienced it all first hand.

We asked young people from London, an area with high population of refugees what they think and know about them. 18 year old Tarina said: “I don’t really know a lot about refugees but I hear about how too many of them are coming in to this country illegally. I don’t always think it’s their fault though because some of them have to escape their own countries .”

Victoria, 17 said: “I think it’s okay if they come to this country for the right reasons, but I don’t think just anybody should be allowed to call themselves a refugee and be allowed into this country.”

What did Victoria mean by the “right” reasons? Does she even know the full reasons people are forced to become refugees? Are young people today being fully educated in to the reasons families would leave their homes and land for a country where their key identity, their name, changes to the word ‘refugee’?

According to the BBC in the year 2000 more than 97,000 people applied for asylum in the UK, the largest number of any EU country. An awful lot of people for the young generation not to “know a lot about.” But young people can’t be expected to understand if nobody is there to be true representation of the stories of refugees.

So whose responsibility is it to educate young people to the reality of refugees faced in their countries? The media, that seems to fracture between the representation of refugees and asylum seekers in a positive and negative light? Parents whose own ideals my colour the facts? Or all these people combined, in order to represent to young people the truth. Maybe  if we all knew a little more about the human stories from both sides, we could come to our own conclusions. Having had time to reflect on our unique and moving week we now see that this is true, that the only way people will come to understand the real reasons for why people become refugees is by making them take time to hear real stories and see performance like the LIFT debate. Young people have a right to create art, and we were there to bear witness and respond in our turn. These stories cannot be ignored by young people in Britain. If they are, ignorance and prejudice will simply grow among British Children in direct proportion to the problems of repression, subjugation and political conflict faced by our peers all over the world.

Story created by Diana, 18 and Jenny, 16

It was originally published in 2003 on: www.opendemocracy.org.uk