Lofa's office in EYST, Swansea, Wales, 2017.
Rosemary (R.) Lofa – so great to see you here in Swansea. We have a small window of opportunity, both for you to talk about yourself and your line of work which is so special, and then to tell us a bit about what impact, if any, the Team Syntegrity had on your life. But tell me, originally, you are from Bangladesh?
Luthfur Ullah (Lofa): My family is from Bangladesh. I was born here. But my grandparents came over to Leeds during the war because there was a shortage of labour. They settled in Leeds and Bradford originally. My grandparents worked in the factories: my father did the same. But when I was one year old, my family moved to Swansea. They had a friend here and this is a really lovely part of the world – they really liked it. Thirty-seven years later, here we still are!
But I am very busy nevertheless: I have five children – 20, 18, 10, six, five – and two partners – though not at once! So it’s all a bit hectic.
R: You don’t have to explain…
Lofa: My oldest son is in Cardiff University studying finance and marketing and it’s hard work with them all but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They take me for a mug of course and my daughters have me wrapped around their little fingers.
My name is actually a particularly patriotic Bangladeshi name, meaning ‘the kindest’ – but it was so difficult to pronounce, by the age of five or six, even my sisters called me Lofa – and everyone calls me that. I’m comfortable with it.
R: You were saying that since the Team Syntegrity event in Barcelona last June you have been incredibly busy…
Lofa: There was so much backlog, I didn’t realise how much my project, the family link work – has exploded. Family Link is helping families within Swansea County engage with services, welfare advice, whatever support they need. It may be on mental health, domestic violence, honour-based violence – all of these things with a BME focus. We are the lead body now on ‘race ‘ in Wales. So we enforce policy, conduct research into the engagement of BME communities with social services and education, integration into the community, how they feel after Brexit and all that cohesion stuff.
This is my new office which we have built and my colleague Shahab and myself are based here now. This week, for example, we have six emergency cases that we are dealing with. It has been like that for months. Tomorrow I am delivering an immigration package to Clearsprings which is a housing provider specifically contracted to provide housing for asylum seekers. They need to be educated now into what to expect and what cultural practises they need to understand. There have been situations where support workers or housing caseworkers would be going into the home and not appreciating certain etiquettes – it could be something small like expecting women to answer the door. Not knowing how to engage. I have been doing a lot of immigration and asylum training recently – three courses in schools since Barcelona.
You would think that schools would be more aware than most: but they are not. I had a primary school recently and a couple of Syrian refugee families had moved into the area. The teachers didn’t know the difference between an immigrant and an emigrant or how to speak to them at all. But once the training starts we have a relationship with that school and they often bring us back to do refresher sessions. And of course we talk to the pupils. We follow up to see how the families are settling in and in this case they are getting on well, and it’s all fine. We have a couple of comprehensive schools where we go in once every two or three weeks to speak to different classes.
At two o’clock, we have four young people coming in. They attend the Rathbone Work-based Learning Programme and we deliver immigration and asylum training, racism and Islamophobia training as part of that. They do 16 hours a week apprenticeships preparing them for work. They are young people who haven’t done terribly well at school. They might have issues at home. Some of them have gone through horrific stuff. They aren’t going onto college and they have fallen through the net. These programmes are designed to give them skills like customer service. Some go on to further education. Hopefully we might have changed some views there. In the beginning they were rather ignorant about the current situation. You’ll meet them and find out for yourselves.
They may hold negative views about other communities. You can understand where the anger is coming from. And when the media carry the sorts of headlines we so often see, they don’t think to question those hostile narratives. But they are lovely kids! I’ve been talking to them about how Germany has taken so many immigrants and asylum seekers and Britain has taken so few in comparison.
That didn’t hit home until I showed them a video called ‘Let me in’ – Alicia Keys. I love her. She’s a singer and she made this video which portrayed a reverse situation, where Americans were suffering under war conditions and many flee to Mexico to seek refuge and the Mexicans let them in! Then that got them thinking. In the news it is always people of colour and people less well off suffering like this and somehow that helps them become desensitised to the situations we are talking about. So I showed them that, and you could have heard a pin drop. Some of them were crying. Now, to get that reaction… when they see it could be us, perceptions change.
Before that they were saying, “No they can’t come here, they should go somewhere else.” So you say, ”Where would you like them to go?” They say, “Why can’t they stay in the refugee camps?” You say, “Well a lot of them do. The largest camp was until recently in Kenya and now it’s in Bangladesh, my home country… because of the Rohingyas – 800 thousand of them, that has shot up in a few months! But in the Kenyan camp there are second generation and third generation refugees.” I said, “Can you imagine somebody being in there on a permanently temporary basis? It’s hopeless.” It opened their eyes a bit I hope.
So you’ll meet Andrew Penhale, who is their tutor. He’s a lovely guy. We work together quite often.
R. Great. Thank you so much for setting that up! Can I just ask you, when you work with Syrian families isn’t there a massive language problem?
Lofa: Yes, of course. I don’t speak Arabic. I have a few phrases for a low level conversation, and because I’m at home with those, my few phrases are enough to make them immediately comfortable. But you met Moossa here just now who is one of my young people, and he speaks Arabic. I have a couple of these volunteers – lovely boys, Qatab, Hassan – they come in to sit with me and the Syrian families to help translate. Qatab is a young person on my Progression Project, my second project, which is all about getting young people trained and educated into volunteering, work or further education. I will facilitate that by getting them work placements or volunteering opportunities. I have a couple of Employment Champions now - someone who has gone into volunteering or work and who is in a position to give something back to help their peers. Qatab is a young man who came here from Iraq just over two years ago. When he came he had very little English, but now he is doing level one in Youth Work and goes to college in Llanelli. He speaks fluent English, but he comes back to me as an Employment Champion on our Progression Project, and also goes to help the Syrian asylum workers with translating for their families. It’s rather amazing.
Lofa as one of five critics in a Team Syntegrity discussion, June 2017.
R. Now we have a better idea, perhaps you could tell me a little more about your experience of working with the other participants in the Team Syntegrity non-hierarchical conference for three and a half days...
Lofa: Well the first thing to say is that I came back from Barcelona inspired. I thought, no, I want to educate myself. I’ve always been on about personal development, but since I came back, Shahab, my colleague and myself have both signed up now for a Masters in youth and community work. After work here every Monday, we go to Cardiff, study until 9.30pm and then back home. My first two assignments, 6,000 words, have to be in at more or less the same time!
R. Well gosh. If I can help – I’ll do a bit of editing any time! How interesting. Are you enjoying it?
Lofa: It’s really good. You know what. It is making me question my own practises at work. I’ve never really thought about the theory behind what I do before. It just comes naturally. But now I’m thinking about it and there is one whole section on developing relationships and reflexive practise which has really got me thinking. I had one client who said something to me that I didn’t really like, and now I find myself replaying all our conversations in my mind and asking myself how we got to the situation where he would say that to me… now I can apply a theory to it. And I think, my God! I’m really enjoying it and it’s all your fault!
R: Did you feel you had a chance to share your experience with the other Team Syntegrity participants in Barcelona?
Lofa: I made some fabulous friends, Vanessa, Rebecca – we were joined at the hip, Joan Pedro, Dafydd – Joan Pedro and me ended up talking all night, so yes they got to know me and quite a lot about my perceptions and my work. Definitely. I wondered if some of the participants who were academics found it more difficult to gather what someone who was not so academic was on about. I’m grass roots and I do think sometimes that people in academia live in some sort of bubble.
R. Joan Pedro was quite articulate about the need to break down those class barriers wasn’t he? I think that was one of his chief learnings from the event: or perhaps he has always thought that way and our three-day event just confirmed it?
Lofa: Yes, that’s right. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. But at times, I felt a bit of a dunce – and asked myself what I was doing there? I was aware that – wow – some of these people were so intelligent that you could have built spaceships in there if you’d wanted to! But actually they made me feel so welcome. And if you asked questions, they would explain. It’s just the way it is – people come from totally different backgrounds and those differences have to be negotiated.
R: And it doesn’t seem to have put you off academe…
Lofa: No, I wanted to learn more. This is what I’m reading now: I’ve always been interested in politics…
R: “Britain and France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East“…
Lofa: And here’s another of my favourites, Noam Chomsky. You know, I’ve always had a passion for reading but never had the time. And now I am taking a bit more time for my education.
R. You were in two Team Syntegrity discussions as a discussant responsible for the outcomes – was one on global citizenship and one on the rise of the far right?
Lofa: That’s right. On that last one, I did get to see a different viewpoint. What I experience of the far right in my work is quite negative. The far right has a bit of a stronghold of activism here in Swansea, so our projects are all about challenging it, alongside challenging Islamic extremism and challenging exploitation.
The far right discussion at Team Syntegrity, Barcelona, June 2017.
But in that discussion, as well as sharing my views and perspectives, I got to thinking that the far right are not that way just because it is the way they are. Maybe their environment contributes to the choices they make. It was Wiebke from Hamburg who made some really good arguments on this. I was really impressed by her. But to be honest, if you ask me – they were all amazing – my fellow participants – they were all amazing! She broadened my view on the whole issue of how we might set about eliminating racism. I don’t know if we will ever manage it, because it isn’t confined to any one grouping, of white people, for example. There are plenty of people of colour, take India, plenty who think they are superior to others because they have lighter coloured skins… so it’s a very widespread phenomenon all over the world. But she has got me thinking about the many different reasons why people start thinking that way.
Global citizenship – that was such a hard topic, because it’s on such a scale. I am a member of the Welsh Alliance for Global Education and Citizenship, although I’ve missed the last two meetings just because of being too busy. We deliver global citizenship education in the schools here as part of ‘personal and social education’ (PSE), and it is not taken very seriously.
I know they are trying to embed it as part of the national curriculum here – and the Donaldson Report highlighted the need for mainstreaming aspects of global citizenship into every subject. They are looking to do that, but it’s not easy to do. My fellow-participant in that discussion, Markha – another lovely woman – wanted to put her ideas over and I wanted to do the same. But we weren’t connecting. She is brilliant though and I do like her grand vision! I like her plans. But I felt her programme in world scholarships was far too ambitious and that we need to start with baby steps, something that anybody could do and be a part of and feel a part of !
So since I have come back, I took a particular interest in the youth exchange that we had arranged with quite a mixed group of 25 people from Molenbeek in Belgium, the community that acquired notoriety recently in connection with terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. They came for a week, and it was very interesting! Here, they met Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers, kids from the Bangladeshi community and from the white mainstream. Unfortunately the kids with more rightwing views don’t access our shelter as much as we’d like them to… I don’t know why. If they came more often, I think they’d be blown away by some of these things that are going on here.
When they get together they actually get along – we have had football matches and so on! These are the small steps – just getting people together to do anything, football every Thursday, beauty parlours for the girls-only drop-in centre attended by Asian, Muslim, Syrian and Welsh girls. That is what most interests me. And on a global level, I wouldn’t try and get them to study because everyone everywhere is on very different educational levels – but if we could just meet! Take people from the north and south of India! Just hang out and chill out and talk to each other. Never mind bringing the Europeans over at this stage. Just meeting would be a good start!
Market-place of ideas, Team Syntegrity, June 2017.