Newham library service's work with the Polish Roma community started with the launch, from one of the libraries, of the Roma Support Group's (RSG) 'Colours of Hope' book that was designed and written by Roma refugee children.  The event included live music and dancing by the RSG's band Romani Rad and a photography exhibition produced by the group in partnership with a local arts organisation.  This event was a good opportunity to promote the RSG's work to the wider public whilst introducing the Roma community to the library service.   Following this event the library service has continued to work with the community which has resulted in the success of further joint initiatives and programmes.   

Background - about Newham

  • 61% of population non-white ethnic minorities (highest in London). 
  • Population is 246,000. 12.9% increase 1991-2001. London average 5.3%.
  • Estimated 8% of the population are refugees. 
  • Youngest London borough: 40% of the population aged 25 or under.  
  • Estimated 17% of primary school pupils are refugees (13% in secondary schools) with 110 languages spoken in the borough's schools.
  • Newham is home to the largest Polish Roma community in the UK and the Roma Support Group co-ordinator works with over 400 families in the borough. 

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Key issues

The library service wants to provide an inclusive and responsive service and increase usage and involvement by refugee communities.

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Project description

The first step was identifying barriers to library access and needs with the involvement of the Roma Support Group (RSG). This led to a series of weekly introductory computer training sessions from February 2005 in the library for young Roma men and women to help build confidence and skills. Many had never used computers before, but wanted to do so and spoke very little English. The Roma Support Group was also involved in selecting Polish books and participated in a programme of events for Refugee Week in 2005.  Weekly ESOL classes are due to start in January 2006 for a group of 15-20 people from Roma community. The library service will be a key partner in the work to be undertaken by the RSG following their successful application for 'Your Heritage' lottery funding.  This project will involve intergenerational workshops to share cultural knowledge and skills within the Roma, community, as well as the wider public.  Libraries will assist by offering monthly study sessions, including access to computers, study space and staff time and have allocated £500 to spend on a collection of books about Roma culture and heritage.   

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Impact and outcomes

The Roma Support Group has been key in enabling the library service to work with Polish Roma in the borough.  The Roma Support Group said that the 'computer classes were one of the most successful and well attended courses that they had helped to organise'.  Part of this success was explained by the popularity of the library service's ICT librarian who ran the class.  The students 'loved him', as he was friendly, welcoming and made an effort to learn a new Polish word each week.  One participant said that the class had built her confidence and she explained how she was able to boast to her son that she now knew how to send emails.  He didn't believe her, so she showed him her new email account!  This success meant that there was an eagerness to hold ESOL classes in partnership with the library as opposed to other venues/service provides, as the community felt 'comfortable' going to the library. 

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Key lessons

  • Vital to have involvement of Roma Support Group to spread the word, get people interested, assist with lessons and translate as required
  • Full scale partnership with the intergenerational workshops project could not have happened without the smaller-scale activities first and building relationship of trust

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Contact information

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Useful resources

Colours of Hope. A little book by Roma refugee children.
A collection of writings and illustrations by Roma refugee children from Poland, now living in East London, produced by the Roma Support Group.

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