A decade ago, the local train-station was where I burned time, popped the top off long necks, and discovered the outcast community that I belonged to. There were Adidas bum-bags strapped across school uniforms, Country Road bags for our Nike Shox, slits shaved into our eyebrows and long mullets that were braided like warriors of some forgotten time.
As a young Middle Eastern migrant, my friends and I assumed it was our appearance that defined us, because it was how we were classified and separated. So we embraced it. Even if it meant hiding our troublesome looks from our parents and high-school teachers, plaited rat-tails were regularly tucked into collars before we walked into the house or the classroom. Because it wasn’t about approval. For us it was about expression.
Last month, I visited Granville Boys High School in Western Sydney where the student populous is predominantly Middle Eastern migrants. There I witnessed how the school was attempting to subvert the rebellious spirit of disillusioned students through the thing that made most sense to them—aesthetic anarchy.
The students of Granville Boys' are no strangers to headlines and racial discrimination. And to help the kids combat the systemic odds, the school introduced a barbershop program that arms at-risk students with scissors and ambition. The “groom room” is a 10-week (term) training and creative program for students aged 14 to 17 who are struggling with their studies. It was initiated by the Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE), an arts organisation based out of western Sydney.
Their objective is to encourage cultural diversity through programs that create developmental pathways and employment opportunities for students. At Granville, the groom room recalibrates the most vulnerable students, those classified by the school as “disengaged,”who are regularly suspended or at-risk of dropping out. And it’s working.
When I arrived at the tall gates of Granville Boys High School, I was buzzed in and a voice in the distance called out, “hold the door open for me bro, my mum is picking me up!” There were a group of boys giggling to each other; mostly Middle-Easterners of Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi decent but some Pacific Islanders and South-East Asian students too.
14-year-old Ravan was quiet, shy and honest. When asked on a VICE questionnaire, “What do you do on weekends?” He noted, “Jail visits, kick it at home.” When Ravan was asked to write down what he hoped to achieve at the end of the barbershop program, in added, “A good future.”
In areas with high rates of unemployment and crime, high schools can often be observed as a microcosm of the societies they spring from. What complicates the situation at Granville Boys is that the majority of the students are Middle Eastern migrants, with 99 percent of the student body made up of students with a language background other than English.
For students, finding your place among the student body can in many ways define who you are—it’s a rite of passage. But when the school setting is incubated in cultural otherness, finding your place in society is an uphill battle, because everyone is culturally displaced to begin with.
The outcast sentiment is reinforced on these kids outside the school walls too. “Every time I go to Woolies they wanna search my bag and search me, when I’m at the train station they [Police] want to search me,” said 14-year-old Mohammed Al-Aboday, “In my opinion they're trying to write up Muslims and ban us from Australia…it’s not a kind thing to do.”
I asked Aymann Alameddine, a student the younger boys looked up to, about the stereotypes in the media about their school. When I began, “Yeah I’ve seen the stuff in the news…” He cut me off. “But it's not really like that, hey.”
While sitting in the corner of the classroom, watching on as the students focused on their clients, friends and teachers who wanted a free haircut, razor-shaves and skin-fades, I understood what he meant. The overwhelming feeling in the room was a sense of collaboration. Each barber would rotate to the next chair, with a snip here and there to correct their colleagues handiwork, and by the time the haircut was complete every student had communally contributed.
The school had worked out something these “at-risk” students have in common; a desire for self expression—a way of making their contribution to our society visible.
Al-Aboday is the loudest and most confident with the clippers, I asked him why he thought he was disengaged, “I do bad things because it’s fun. Bad things are usually fun. But my mum says, ‘bad things only last a few seconds and education lasts a lifetime.’”
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