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Guest blog: Black Lives Matter and World Refugee Week 2020, by Vicky Hutchin

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Thursday, 18 June, 2020

As the heartfelt demonstrations, outpourings of emotion and demands for action against institutional racism in the US and here in the UK continue, we move into World Refugee Week this week, 15th – 21st June.

Racism is rife in our society, permeating down to the youngest children who may have already learnt attitudes of prejudice towards skin colour, language and accent. Teachers and practitioners often overhear xenophobic and racist comments, as well as children excluding others on the quiet.   Such engrained attitudes, especially racism and hate crime towards Black people results in huge inequalities.  Islamophobia is just as prevalent.

Dealing with underlying causes and attempting to combat them is the most important action needed. Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the UK are doubly discriminated against, first by government policy and second by prejudice in many local communities. In the COVID-19 pandemic life is far worse for them.

Using Persona Dolls and the Persona Doll storytelling approach is all about addressing the underlying causes of prejudice by helping children to understand and celebrate diversity, broadening their knowledge about others whose lives are different from their own, building a culture of respect for all.  Importantly it provides a safe space for children whose lives are marred by prejudice, discrimination, bullying and discrimination to talk about the issues they and their families face. 

The handmade dolls sold by Persona Doll Training come in a wide range of skin tones and hair types to mirror human diversity. Practitioners create an identity, life history, family background for the life-like Doll, treating it as if it was another child.  The Doll is used to tell stories about all the good everyday life things that might have happened to it and any problems they may face around unfairness or prejudice such as racism or sexism.  The children are invited help to solve the problems.

An infant teacher created a persona and background for a Persona Doll she called Abdul. His family are refugees from Syria. They had a very difficult journey to get here.  They now live in a small flat in Hull. Abdul is just 5, but his family talk about the big garden where they used to live in Syria with his grandparents - he does not know where they are now.  His Mum and Dad and older sister wish they could find them. It makes Abdul sad.  The children in the class bond with Abdul and try to help him when he feels sad or worried.

A nursery practitioner created a persona and background for a Doll called Salma who is 4. Salma lives with her mother, grandmother, and her older brother and sister. She has not seen her father since they left Iran two years ago. No-one in the family knows where he is. Sometimes people in the street say nasty things to her Mum as her mum was hurt and has to walk with crutches now. Sometimes children at her nursery say her Mum ‘talks funny and walks funny’.  The practitioner asks the children in the group if they have any ideas to help Salma when people say things like this.

Another teacher heard children hissing at the only black child in her class, "Joshua, go away. You can't play with us. We don't like black people."  The next day she told a Persona Doll story based on the incident, using a Doll the children already knew well - an Asian girl Doll called Parvani - changing the scenario from what had happened in the class to prevent the children involved being recognised.  The children had already been told many happy everyday stories about Parvani, but today the children can tell something is wrong now as Parvani is hiding her face. They ask why she isn’t looking at them.

"Something is happening in Parvani’s school that has really upset her. Kerry and Emily, her best friends, giggle in front of her, then they run and hide. This morning Emily said that her mum says she mustn’t play with Parvani because she and her family are brown and they don’t belong in our country. Then Emily and Kerry told her to go away.

"Parvani said she was so upset she went and sat by herself in a corner. She didn’t feel like talking to anyone. She wants to know if you’ve ever felt like that. Parvani told me she’s very worried about tomorrow. She doesn’t know what to do – can you help her?"

The children respond with some of their ideas to help Parvani.

Vicky Hutchin is an Early Education Associate and Co-ordinator of Persona Dolls.  For further information see the Persona Dolls website