Sudanese Supplementary School: Strengthening Diversity, Bilingualism

Mathaba.Net, Africa
June 30 2004

Sudanese Supplementary School: Strengthening Diversity, Promoting

What is the former governor of Darfur, Eltigani Seisi Ateem, doing at
the Sudanese Supplementary School (SSS) off Edgware Road in
Paddington Green? Taking his little daughter to Arabic lessons,
socialising with other parents and discussing the work of the Darfur
Civil Organisations Campaign.

The school is the epicentre of London’s Sudanese community. The first
to arrive on Saturday mornings is the Chairman, Dr Ahmed El Dawi,
carrying an impressive bill board with SSS in Arabic and English. The
large black letters compliment the red lettering above of Westminster
College. The building is quickly transformed into little Sudan: in
the cafeteria Sudanese women sell traditional cloth, families meet,
letters are translated into English and Arabic, students are praised
and admonished.

>From 10am the children, aged from five to 16 start arriving – some on
foot, others in the car with their proud parents. The bright pinks
and reds of traditional clothes and veils contrast with plainer,
conventional Western dress. The hive of activity intensifies
throughout the day. People arrive asking about friends who may have
just come to London, friends are re-united, new friendships are made,
old friends exchange news. A sign in Arabic above the pay phone in
the cafeteria says children must be supervised when making calls. The
school had problems with youngsters dialing 999. Now they don’t use
the phone without an adult present.

A thriving, multiethnic institution (Iraqis, Algerians, Egyptians,
Moroccans, Eritreans and mixed race children attend), established ten
years ago, the school has over 300 pupils and more than 30 voluntary
teachers, managers and assistants. Politics are left outside the gate
and most of the pupils get on well with one another. The GCSE Arabic
pass rate is 100 percent and many candidates score high grades.
Classes are held from 10am to 2pm, 35 Saturdays throughout the year
and include English, Maths, Arabic and Cultural Studies. Music is now
part of the curriculum: cultural events and sports are organised each
term: there is a series of lectures for parents on Sudanese history
and aspects of art, music and culture.

More than 70 students are on the waiting list. The fee is £100 but
sixty percent of the parents can’t afford it. “The SSS feels it is
immoral and unacceptable to reject non-paying pupils as they are most
in need of the school’s assistance and support”, emphasised Dr El
Dawi who spends a lot of time trying to raise funds and digging deep
into his own pocket. There is a shortage of books and local charities
have been contacted for assistance. “Everybody does their bit”, Dr El
Dawi emphasised. The list of funders is impressive and includes the
Paddington Development Fund, the Paddington Association for
Supplementary Schools, the Edward Harvest Trust, the Bridge House
Trust and the City of Westminster.

“We have opted for total transparency. We will be crystal clear –
there is no hidden agenda or any ulterior motives. The goal is to
enhance our children’s education and promote their social
integration. This is becoming a daunting task as many refugees and
asylum seekers decide to remain in the UK indefinitely”, Dr El Dawi

“Identity recognition is essential”, emphasised the former
co-ordinator who teaches Quran recitation. Overflowing with
enthusiasm she is a modest, eloquent woman who came to Britain in
1994 to join her husband who left Sudan ‘ for political reasons’ and
does not want her name in print. “It is vital for the children to be
valued and recognised as human beings. The school gives their social
identity a boost. It is not just about learning Arabic. Most of the
parents are refugees on income support or asylum seekers and need a
lot of support and assistance in making the transition to life in
Britain while at the same time maintaining their cultural identity.

Amira Faisal, the activities co-ordinator responsible for sports and
social affairs, who has lived in Britain for the past 20 years does
not begin teaching until 2pm. Badmington, football, basketball,
football, table tennis, rugby and games for the younger children are
on the programme and the annual sports day is a major event in the
school’s calander. But Ms Faisal arrives early to assist and advise
parents many of whom speak little or no English. She has three
children in the school herself – the sports instructor was once a

“Learning about Sudanese traditions is very important. The children
have to know about their background and cultural heritage. We don’t
want them to forget these things because they are not in Sudan. At
home the parents may be keen to learn English and will not speak to
the children in Arabic. They start forgetting their langauge and feel
left out when guests come and they cannot follow the conversation”.

The children, from the youngest to the oldest, feel learning Arabic
is important. “We learn Arabic here and speak like we do in my
country”, said Aziza (7). “We have fun, everyone speaks Arabic and
English. It is fun to speak both languages. We play a lot of games
and have fun.”, said Nadia (11) She has visited Sudan four times and
was feeling sad because one of her cousins died. “He was younger then
me”. The older children are ambitious: one wants to be child
psychologist, another a doctor, another an engineer. Some are
focusing on music but for everyone learning Arabic is a top priority.

“I am doing GCSE in Arabic”, said Hana (15). It is a good subject for
me as I have experience in it. At school I get together with lots of
Sudanese people. Its good to be with people from your own country and
speak your language”.

The 15 classes are small, often with no more than ten children and
two teachers who love every minute they spend sharing their knowledge
with the students. The younger children come forward eagerly with
their exercise books and explain they are learning the Arabic
alphabet. The older students are serious and determined to succeed.

Many would like to visit Sudan. The schools activities, described in
detail on a professionally designed website ,
include sending volunteers to teach in rural schools in Sudan for up
to six months through the Sudan Volunteer Programme. The school also
co-operates with the Abdel Karim Mirghani Culture Centre in Omdruman
in the production of a bi lingual magazine, Nafaj which is sold as a
fund-raising venture.

The origins of supplementary and mother-tongue schools in Great
Britain can be associated with the presence of immigrant and refugee
children in British schools which goes back hundreds of years. The
Armenian refugees, for example, settled in Britain 700 years ago: the
French Hugonots came in the 17th century and the Jews from Eastern
Europe entered Britain between 1880 and 1914. But more recent
developments in this area of supplementary education can be largely
attributed to the efforts of black and Asian communities in this
country. The 1997 EEC directive of which the UK is a signatory,
obliges member states to promote the teaching of mother-tongue. In
the London area alone 275 minotiry languages are spoken by school age

The SSS offers a focal point within London for the Sudanese people,
many of whom are bewildered by being there and need regular help and
support, especially to ensure their children take best advantage from
their day schools all over the city.

In the late afternoon when the last parents have collected their
children, Dr El Dawi takes down the SSS sign. He is tired but happy.
Reflecting on the past ten years as the school has grown from
strength to strength with a non arrogant pride Dr El Dawi emphasises
that he is not looking for publicity. “It is an honour to serve the
community. We are liasing with many local and national organisations
to promote a sense of belonging for the children and the community at