Burnley and Pendle pupils' fight hate with moving new film
"Now people will think I'm a terrorist".
Those were the heart-breaking words of a Muslim teenager from Burnley two days after the attack on Manchester Arena.
As news of the tragedy unfolded, a group of 19 high school pupils from the town began to understand the devastating impact of hate and vowed to fight against it using the power of film.
Joining forces with Burnley Youth Theatre, youngsters from Blessed Trinity RC College, Burnley, and Marsden Heights Community College, Nelson, are tackling racism, radicalism and bullying in their new documentary, We Will Stand Together.
Among the pupils leading the fight is Romanian-born Alexandra Neuschli (14) of Marsden Heights, who said: "Bullies often target people who speak more than one language, have a different skin colour or come from another country because they're afraid of things which are different."
Also championing the mission is classmate George Alexandru (14), from Romania, who added: "Just because people speak and act differently, doesn't mean they are a threat."
Blessed Trinity pupil Emily Kendall (13), of Burnley, revealed she was bullied in primary school and was told the culprits had targeted her out of jealousy.
It's one of the reasons she hopes the film will encourage young people to take a stance against hate.
"We were all afraid to tell someone about our bullies but making the documentary has given us the confidence to stand up for what's right," she said.
"If you see something you think is wrong, then you have to tell someone about it."
"If one person speaks out about abuse then others might do too," added George.
And, as Alexandra said: "The solution is simple - stop judging others."
Fortunately, both schools have taken further steps to protect pupils from becoming the targets of bullies by setting up a “blue slip” system which allows them to report abuse anonymously.
But it's not just in school where these 19 young film-makers are calling on people to reject hate.
Burnley Youth Theatre's education and schools engagement coordinator, Laura Veevers, who helped to lead the project, said: "At the start they felt they couldn't make a difference in the world but they've learnt that even though they're young they can still have an opinion and help to create change.
"It's empowered them and they no longer turn a blind eye to abuse."
In fact, Laura is simply stunned by their transformation.
For at the beginning of the project, the youngsters were unaware of the destructive impact of many of today’s global issues on their communities.
But now, they’re rejecting “fake news”, realising that not everything online is true and, above all, learning that stereotypes may be nothing more than harmful myths.
"I've seen the pupils change and grow in confidence over such a short period of time so I hope they take those lessons forward and use them in their schools and communities rather than leaving them at the front doors of Burnley Youth Theatre," she said.
"They've created such a brilliant legacy."
And it all started when Afrasiab Anwar MBE, Coordinator of Burnley and Pendle Faith Centre, came across videos promoting radicalism.
The disturbing footage inspired Afrasiab to challenge extreme ideas by working with young people to create a positive film which could be shared with schools across the area.
It was the birth of a partnership between himself, Burnley Youth Theatre and both Blessed Trinity and Marsden Heights.
But the project hit a wall when it became clear that the pupils didn't understand many of the concepts at the centre of racism and radicalism.
That was, until tragedy struck and opened their eyes to the toxic impact of hate on a global scale.
"About half-way through the project, the attack on Manchester Arena happened," said Afrasiab in a speech at Burnley Youth Theatre.
"That's when the penny dropped.
"They knew people who'd been there at the time so we talked to them about how the bombing had affected them.
"They wrote down their thoughts on paper and many of the Muslim pupils had said, 'Now people will think I'm a terrorist'".
It was at this moment that the youngsters began to find their voice, and vowed to use the project to break down cultural stereotypes, celebrate diversity and encourage togetherness.
"The positive messages from this project need to be bottled and shared with the rest of Lancashire," Afrasiab added.
A champion was found in Near Neighbours, a charity which helps people living in multi-faith areas to better understand each other's religious and ethnic backgrounds and encourages them to work together on local issues.
Lynne Mitchell, East Lancashire coordinator for Near Neighbours, which provided funding for the documentary, said: "We have more in common than that which divides us.
"The film's message is extremely important because of a fear of the other in our community.
"These types of projects help to break down barriers between people and the message is even more powerful because it's being delivered by young people who will go out and spread it.
"It's just an amazing project for Near Neighbours to be involved in."
It's a campaign that has also resonated with Burnley MP Julie Cooper, a VIP at the documentary's launch.
Addressing the audience, she said: "I have a vision for our town and I want to share it: wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone got along?
"I don't want to make everyone the same but instead celebrate our differences."
The issue at the heart of We Will Stand Together is something which has already caused devastation in Mrs Cooper's life.
For on June 16, 2016, her friend and fellow Labour Party MP, of Batley and Spen, Jo Cox, was murdered by a man who disagreed with her left-wing views.
"I hadn't been in Parliament for two minutes before Jo was murdered and it made me think again about what happens when we don't get along," Mrs Cooper said.
"Jo always championed the underdog and someone hated her for that.
"But she'd have loved to have seen this film and would have been proud of it.
"It's exciting because these young people are the future of Burnley and Pendle, they're doing their schools and their families proud and they fill me with hope."
For more information about the film, please call 01282 427767.