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Changing lives through film and football

Halema Hussain (on the left) and friends
Halema Hussain (on the left) and friends

Halema Hussain sounds like a confident, articulate young woman. But she didn’t used to be that way. Until last October the 15-year-old was wary of talking to strangers and was reluctant to travel beyond the streets of Wembley, her home. She wouldn’t use public transport and often felt unsafe.

A lot of London teenagers feel the same way. As a 2012 report on education commissioned by the Mayor of London found, too many young people in the capital – especially those from less privileged backgrounds – are strangers to their home town.

“Whether they find it too difficult to travel, or feel intimidated about leaving their neighbourhood, young people can sometimes miss out on the rich experiences that London offers,” the report said.

Things changed for Halema when she got involved with London Football Journeys, a project that uses football as a way of bringing people from different communities together – including those who, like Halema, are not actually that interested in the game.

Working with a group of kids from her school, Ark Elvin Academy, the project taught Halema how to plan, film and edit a short video about the area where she lives, how it feels to live there, and what she thinks about football. The teenagers talk on camera, interview each other, and gather views from their community, too.

Copland Community School | LFJ Video from London Football Journeys on Vimeo.

When the Ark Elvin kids had finished their video, they swapped it with a group of young people from St Thomas the Apostle College in Peckham, across the other side of London. They were part of the project too and had been making a similar film about their lives and their community.

Once the two groups had watched each other’s films, and talked about what it might be like to live in another part of London, they went to visit each other’s community, to have a look around its school, to make friends and to play football.

“It was my first time in Peckham and I really enjoyed it,” says Halema. “I’d never travelled by myself before. But I felt really comfortable because I had everyone on my team with me.”

Beyond the comfort zone

The unique part of London Football Journeys is not the football, but the way the project uses video, explains Alex Baine, who founded the project in 2012, after two years working with a Mumbai project that used football to help slum kids learn life skills and find a way into education.

“We take the kids outside their comfort zones by asking them to tell a story about who they are and where they’re from,” he says. “They have to think about how they want to introduce themselves in a way that creates positive expectations.”

Each film is shot across three weeks, with one three-hour session each week. “Rather than us just filming them, we let the kids decide all aspects of their video,” explains Alex. “We then edit it, bring it back for feedback, and get them to sign it off once they’re happy with it.”

When the groups meet to play football together, it’s not about who wins. “It’s always about mixing the groups up – not at all about them versus each other,” says Alex. Each six-hour visit includes pointers on communication and teamwork, learned through football and mini matches.  “Then we have food together and visit the local youth club or centre.”

Between February and November last year, 87 young people aged 11 to 15 took part in the project. They felt more confident meeting young people from other communities (78%) and travelling to other areas in London (72%). They said they’d become better leaders (79%) and better communicators (88%).

Learning life skills

Emmanuel Akin was one of them. Like Halema, the 16-year-old is now an ambassador for the cause. “I am helping to make peace among young people in different areas. This is a skill to sell. I hope that employers like it,” he says.

When Emmanuel helps to organise the football journeys, “I have to explain the roles and tasks to the kids, which has helped me learn how to become a good leader,” he says.

“The project has made me feel positive about my area, particularly as there have been gang-related issues in the past,” he adds. “Some young people see it as a threat, going into other areas. We do not have those concerns now. This is a great achievement.”

Community leaders agree. “Breaking down postcode barriers is needed in society today,” says George Henry, community coach at Crystal Palace FC Foundation. “The concept of taking two different youth groups and letting them experience hosting, as well as travelling to an unfamiliar environment, is not only smart but is the easiest way of helping to tackle these barriers.”

The London Community Foundation has backed the project with two grants totalling £29,000, from the Evening Standard’s Red Nose Day fund and Sport Relief fund. “That money has made a huge difference,” says Alex. “We’ve been able to expand our project to four new boroughs in London and undertake an independent impact report on our programmes.”

Halema is clear about how the project has affected her. “I’m confident now,” she says, on her return from a project meeting in Victoria. “I’m using trains and buses, travelling around London, going everywhere by myself, doing public speaking. The project is amazing. It’s changed my life.”

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