Nov 30, 2018; Phoenix, AZ, USA:Federal immigration authorities have been releasing migrant families from Central America of off Department of Homeland Security buses and into local churches. USA TODAY Network/Press Association. All rights reserved.
‘I wish that people wouldn’t judge me when they don’t know me’. This is what Sara tells me when I ask her what her future hopes are.
Sara (not her real name) is seeking asylum in the UK. Like most in her shoes, she has fled her country to seek safety here but has been left destitute while her asylum claim is being processed. With no recourse to public funds, Sara desperately wants to work and contribute to this country but the UK asylum system will only let her work if her claim takes longer than 12 months to process (a waiting period longer than that of any other European country, the USA or Canada). This system benefits nobody: while people like Sara are pushed into destitution, the UK economy loses an estimated £42 million in lost contributions from asylum seekers who want to work, but cannot.
Yet while Sara’s circumstances may sound remarkable, her experiences are more universal that we may think. Indeed her story – of survival, of wanting a better life, and of the need for human contact – is as old as the story of mankind itself.
It is also a story which many of us, in this day and age, can relate to. At a time when loneliness is now a serious public policy concern, longstanding inequality persists among the most disadvantaged in society, and food banks are facing unprecedented demand this December, perhaps we should be reminding ourselves that Sara’s story is about more than seeking asylum. Her experience of loneliness, depression, survival, destitution and discrimination is likely to resound with many of us, who, even if we have not personally been through it, will know others who have.
And yet labels, such as ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘scrounger’, with all their present-day toxicity, only serve to distance us from people like Sara. As Hanif Kureishi writes, the migrant has no ‘face, status or story’ under such labels and this kind of ‘othering’ only serves to compound the exclusion of people who are already at the margins of society: the poor, the homeless, the vulnerable.
It also limits our vision of how to support these people. The permanence of labels leads to inertia; we either seem willing to sacrifice people at the altar of austerity or blame them for their own circumstances (pollsters, for example, have found the benefit cap among the most popular of government policies). To pursue this kind of thinking is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of life itself: its potential fragility, instability and modern-day precariousness (57% of people in poverty are now from working households).
Fortunately for Sara, there was the Olympias Music Foundation (OMF), which uses music (choirs, instrumental lessons, performance workshops) to transform the lives of children, refugees and asylum seekers and encourage community integration through musical sharing. Sara got involved in OMF’s Women’s Voices Choir, which saved her from depression. ‘Singing is good for the soul but also the mind’, she says, while performing in front of crowds boosted her self-esteem. On Wednesday, Sara will be performing in a fully-staged production of Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’, alongside her ‘sisters’ from the Women’s Voices Choir and two professional opera singers from the Royal Northern College of Music. OMF recognise the importance of including everyone at the margins of their community and their wider work has won awards for promoting equality, diversity and integration in the communities which they serve. But as good as their work is, charities such as theirs are often grappling a much bigger challenge: that of hardening public attitudes towards those in need.
In this sense, we can all do our bit on International Migrants Day. This may involve donations to support the ongoing work of charities such as OMF, the founder of which has not paid herself since the charity was founded in 2015, but it could also involve evaluating the way we think about those at the margins of our own communities. Attitudes must not be allowed to harden, or fluctuate between pity, indifference and disdain. We have to act. We have to get involved if we have something to offer (most of us do), volunteer if we can, or simply make a more conscious effort to reach out to those on our doorstep, who are struggling to get by. In doing so, we acknowledge that ‘their’ circumstances speak to our common humanity – our own struggles, battles and challenges in daily life. As Sara might say, aren’t we all fleeing something?
So today, on International Migrants Day 2018, let’s recognise the efforts, contributions and rights of migrants, yes. But let’s also recognise their humanity, and in doing so, reclaim a bit of our own from those that would have us believe that the world is divided by the simple binaries of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
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