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Different pasts, shared future

Note to self: Make sure you know the meaning of the past before you set about cleaning the windows of the future! Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith blogs her experiences during Refugee Week

Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith
21 June 2010

Monday 14th June

Refugee Week was launched on Sunday with the Celebrating Sanctuary festival on the South Bank, with the theme Different pasts, shared future. It’s a welcome antidote to the relentless negativity from politicians and the media we had to endure about immigration and asylum seekers during the elections

First launched in 1998, Refugee Week celebrates the contributions refugees bring to the UK,. It aims to counter the fear, ignorance and negative stereotypes of refugees and asylum seekers and to promote understanding about the reasons why people seek sanctuary through arts, music, food - and just bringing people together in their local areas.

The Refugee Week Team of Welsh and Scottish Co-ordinators, an Online and Marketing Officer and a small number of volunteers is pulling the whole week together - an impressive job for a small team.  I see they’re urging us to join in the “Simple Acts” Campaign this year, “by doing one small, everyday action to change perceptions of refugees and help create a society we all want to live in”. The target is 20,000 Simple Acts completed by World Refugee Day on Sunday 20th June. Ideas include recipes, articles, quizzes, and school events. Someone’s already got right into the spirit of it by posting “I've just kissed a refugee  x” on the website which seems like a more exciting version of David Cameron’s less popular “hug a hoodie” campaign. But probably best to get to know each other first before you try it.

Tuesday

I called in at Women for Refugee Women, founded by Natasha Walter, to see an exhibition of photos by Women Asylum Seekers Together called "Home Sweet Home".  WRW supports WAST which is a self help group enabling women who have sought asylum in the UK to communicate their own experiences and their views of what 'home' means to them. The poignant, intimate images are created by the women themselves, many of whom had never held a camera before.

They include pictures of their own living conditions, shared rooms and queues at drop in centres. A photograph of a woman sitting by a bed, taken by Abeba Haile, has the caption: “This is my friend’s home. She lives in this room with her husband and two children, aged 10 and 8. The children don’t have a garden or a place to play, so they usually play on the bed. The entire family sleep on the bed. All their clothes are packed in suitcases, to make room.” Another photograph by Gloria Kwesiga shows a picture of her daughter, placed beside her bed. Gloria hasn’t seen her daughter since she came to the UK from Uganda in 2003.

Natasha tells me that comments from the public at the Celebrating Sanctuary festival showed how moved people were by the exhibition: “Many people said that it was the one thing at the festival that really gave them an insight into the day to day struggle for survival that asylum seekers face in this country.” Photographs from the project will next be shown at the Churches Refugee Network meeting on 8 July.

Wednesday

Attended an ActionAid supporters meeting this evening to hear guest speaker Maggy Barankitse from Burundi. Tall, elegant, charismatic, Maggie held 100 people in the audience spellbound with her story - one of breathtaking courage, and ultimately one of hope. It is hard to believe what she endured and what she’s achieved. 

Maggie was threatened and attacked by a genocidal mob in Burundi 1993: "They beat me and tied me up, and then covered the building in fuel".  Over 70 of her friends and colleagues died inside the building - all Hutus that she had been trying to hide and protect. Maggy managed to rescue 32 children from the inferno and keep them safe throughout the civil war, with support from ActionAid. “I’m a Tutsi, but that’s an accident, I was born that way, but I’m not particularly proud of it. I am proud to be a woman and a human being.”

Since that fateful day she has supported more than 10,000 orphans and she’s worked with Burundi refugees who are returning from the camps in Tanzania. Her project, Maison Shalom, offers education and health facilities to returning refugees either free of charge or at a rock bottom cost. Maggy also travels across Europe building bridges between African refugees and local communities. “My dream is to create a new Burundi that is free from violence. I want to create a new generation that has the light to put out the darkness we have all seen too much of. I tell the children constantly, ‘remember that you are the fruit of love. There is no Hutu, no Tutsi, we are all the same'. I know I myself can never stop the war, but I can stop it in my heart, and I can stop it in the hearts of these children.”

This woman is inspirational! I cried on the shoulder of the supporter sitting next to me, though we’d never met before. Maggy deservedly won The Guardian Achievement in International Development Award last year; she should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thursday

I’m standing in the queue outside the Museum of Immigration and Identity in the heart of Brick Lane. The sun’s come out at last and it gives me a chance to talk to the other visitors in the queue, who are as fascinatingly diverse as the story of the Museum itself:  Australians, Chileans, a couple from Lancashire, and a dozen or more migrant women, many in burkhas, from the nearby Heba women’s enterprise project, out on a day trip with some of their kids. Philip Black, member of the Advisory Board of the Museum, explains that this is a special opening for Refugee week.  The Museum is sadly, normally closed, because the building badly needs repair and they are desperately trying to raise the £3 million needed to stop it falling down. Philip tells us the museum is the only one of its kind in Europe, an internationally-acclaimed educational project that aims to create awareness of centuries of incomers - Asian, Saxon, Caribbean, Jewish, Irish, Huguenot, Kosovan and many others - who have shaped and are shaping British society. The project works with a whole range of people: children, students, young men who have committed racially motivated crimes, recently- arrived refugees, and business leaders.

Once inside the shabby and dusty listed building, I had the sensation of walking through time, down steps almost worn through with generations of feet. Built in 1719, the house was first home to the Osiers, a family of Huguenots who fled from France escaping persecution, and entered the silk trade. For some years afterwards the building was used for weavers’ workshops and it was many things after that, including a school at one point. In the mid-19th century, as the area came to be home to a large community of Eastern European Jews, the garden of the house was converted to a synagogue, which remained in service for almost a hundred years. Local schoolchildren created the museum’s interactive exhibition Suitcases and Sanctuary, about the refugee experience. I like the idea that it’s a museum created by children for the education of adults.

You have to look hard to unpeel the intriguing layers of more than 300 years of history to uncover the multiple cultures and uses of the building. The attractive pagoda-shaped green and amber stained glass roof caught my eye immediately; it flashed through my mind that it could look great with a good clean up! But appearances are deceptive; it turns out the window was not intended as a decorative feature after all, but was installed so that poor weavers on the upper floors could work longer hours by making the most of every minute of daylight. And the black “grime” on the panes is in fact the remains of paint applied in the black- out during the war. Luckily an enthusiastic team of volunteers were on hand to explain it all to me. Note to self: Make sure you know the meaning of the past before you set about cleaning the windows of the future! This building and the museum are an essential and fascinating part of the history of diversity in this country. 

Friday

Family outing to the Ritzy Picture House with my mum and brother to see the feature-length documentary “Moving to Mars” made by Mat Whitecross (The Road to Guantanamo) with the help of the Refugee Council. The screening is part of a number of films the Ritzy will be showing as part of Refugee Week, and10% of the box office takings will go direct to the Refugee Council.

The film follows two refugee families from Burma (Myanmar) over the course of a year, giving a unique insight into the experiences of displaced people throughout the UK, at the same time showing the human consequences of Burma's political unrest. Forced from their homeland by the repressive military junta, the two families from the Karen tribe have lived in a Thai refugee camp of 40,000 inhabitants for twelve years.  In the first half of the film you see the families in the refugee camp in Thailand.  In many respects, it appears to be an idyllic way of life, surrounded by tropical forest, thatched huts nestling among the trees, with the support of the community they have built up there.  Yet again, appearances are deceptive; the fact is that these people have experienced unimaginable trauma and still live in daily fear of their lives, and their welcome from the Thai government is wearing thin.

The resettlement scheme offers the families the chance of a new life in Sheffield, but this is so different from everything they have ever known. The film shows them saying goodbye to their families and friends, and there’s a real sense of what it means to be displaced: loss of community, identity, place and home. One of the women has to say goodbye to her sister and their family, never knowing if she will ever see them again.

The most poignant moment in the film for me was seeing them arriving in the UK and travelling by coach along the motorway, passing the sign to Rotherham and Sheffield, (a route I’ve travelled many times visiting my own sister and family who live in Sheffield).  One of the refugee family members is strumming his guitar, which he learned to play in the refugee camp, and singing the country and western song “Take me home country roads.” You witness the families’ joy at being in the UK and their hopes for the future, and then gradually the reality sets in; the cold and damp of Sheffield, the difference in culture, the lack of community, the stresses and complexity of modern Western life.

There is a message of hope at the end of the film that, the world over, children are much more adaptable and resilient than their parents. Out in the London sunlight, the Ritzy's doors are flung open and there are scores of women with their newborn babies, enjoying a coffee at the tables spilling out onto the pavement in Brixton's newly built Piazza.  This is what life should be like for all kids.

Sunday

Refugee Action commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out a nationwide survey among refugees and asylum seekers asking them about life in Britain, British culture and what they most value about life in this country for Refugee Week. The findings were revealing and gave a reassuringly optimistic picture of how refugees view Britain, our culture and the level of their engagement with it.

The poll gained widespread coverage in the British press.  I am also greatly cheered by the editorial in the Observer newspaper this morning which asks “Why are we so cruel to those seek sanctuary?” accompanied by a feature article in the review pages about the positive face of asylum - an Afghani teenager who became a refugee 10 years ago, and who is now about to graduate from Cambridge University.

 I was looking forward to a week of celebration, but my journey through refugee week turned out to be so much more than that.  Listening to refugees’ stories, I was struck by the thought that the refugee experience has a lot to teach us. It’s about human beings on the very edge, precipitated by the very worst we can be; stories of cruelty, prejudice, discrimination, rejection, fear and hatred; and feelings of loss - of identity, home, of longing and belonging.  And it can also bring out the very best we have in us: courage, endurance, forgiveness, hospitality and hope, which should resonate with every human being on the planet.

 

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