In the midst of the Brexit chaos, PETER BARRON discovers how a pioneering initiative in County Durham is forging new friendships among young people from around the world


THE room falls respectfully silent as Tom Chen – a student from Changsha in China – gets to his feet and makes a short but moving speech that ends with the words: “I will remember this in my heart forever.”

Speaking in the grand, traditionally English setting of St Hild’s College in Durham City, Tom had told his gathering of new friends: “It’s been really cool to come here and meet amazing people from so many different cultures.”

Liliya Asenova, from Bulgaria, also has the confidence to get to her feet. “I have enjoyed making so many friends from different countries and I know they will be friends not just for one week but last my whole life,” she says to warm applause.

Similar sentiments are echoed in turn by young people from Russia, Kazakhstan, Finland and England as this year’s Most Education Summer Camp comes to a formal close with a dinner followed by a disco.

As the stalemate and bitterness over Brexit continues, and Britain’s new-look Government steers a course towards a no-deal departure from the European Union, there is a particular poignancy about this year’s coming together of 75 young people in the spirit of internationalism.

Dr. Lana Briton, chief executive of Most Education – a Durham-based non-profit organisation promoting cultural relations and international educational opportunities – is the driving force behind the summer camp, which is now in its tenth year.

Passionately supported by her husband Michael, a former PE teacher at Teesdale Comprehensive, Dr. Briton describes this year’s gathering as “an outstanding success” but admits that Brexit cast a shadow.

“It was challenging this year to persuade some international partners to send their groups here amongst the negativity surrounding Brexit,” she says. “They were simply worried about the reception they would get in England for being foreign.”

Mercifully, those fears have proved to be unfounded and the youngsters will return to their own countries with special memories of the warm welcome they received in the North-East of England.

“I am delighted that we delivered the Best of British: tolerance, friendliness, safety and a massive joy to youngsters who mixed so well,” adds Dr Briton. “Also, I am proud that we have shown the world that we are open for business and welcome international guests and tourists who play such an important role in the regional economy.”

The annual summer camp is funded by Erasmus Plus, an EU student exchange programme, as well as the EU Commission and Most Education, with some of the youngsters’ families also contributing.

After staying with host families in the North-East, the youngsters spend a week together, living in student accommodation in Durham, and taking part in workshops, sports events, debates, role-plays, team-building exercises and fun activities.

Chinese tour leader Sabrina Shi has no doubt about the value of the programme, which has given her eight-strong group from Inner Mongolia an unforgettable experience: living with English families; joining classes at Risedale Sports Community College, in Catterick Garrison; visiting London, York, Cambridge and Alnwick Castle; then finally mixing with youngsters from other countries at St Hild’s College.

“They have learned so much about how to act in Western culture but also enjoyed cooking Chinese meals for their host families, so that the benefits are on both sides,” says Sabrina.

Risedale pupil Bradley Middleton, 15, has had children from Russia and Kazakhstan staying with his family in Catterick Garrison. “It really brings people out of their shell and helps us all to have a better understanding of other countries,” he says.

Brian Stobie, International Officer for Durham County Council, is a guest at the dinner and he describes the summer camp as “priceless”. “It is creating experiences, understanding, and memories that will last lifetimes,” he says.

Aidan Hewitt, from Bishop Auckland, is testament to the impact the initiative has on young lives. A participant eight years ago, it made such an impression on his life that he now acts as a volunteer leader on the programme.

Aidan, now 21, is type one diabetic and that presented problems for him as a pupil at Teesdale School, until Michael Briton became his form teacher and introduced him to the summer camp.

“I didn’t feel involved before but being part of this made me feel included and wanted,” he says.

Aidan was inspired to go into education and has just finished an apprenticeship as a teaching assistant at Evergreen, a school for children with profound learning difficulties in Bishop Auckland. He is also studying to become an international football referee.

“All of it stems back to the summer camp – it’s not an exaggeration to say that it transformed my life,” he says.

Let us hope that the Most Education Summer camp continues long beyond its tenth anniversary and overcomes the challenges that Brexit will inevitably bring after October 31.

In such turbulent and divisive times, anything that builds bridges between countries, aids international understanding, and creates lifelong friendships across the globe, must surely be treasured.