Standing together: beyond the headlines

Jennifer Allsopp
20 June 2008

"Ok, now give me youthful enthusiasm!"

We all beam up at the camera as the local journalist takes photos of us preparing banners for Refugee Week; balloons, laughter and colourful paint. ‘Maybe we could paint ‘Refugee Week' on one of your faces?' The irony kills me; reluctant for a foreign face to appear in relation with this issue unless they are a criminal or footballer, a pretty white face is a lovely stage. For one day only it will be me, the lucky one to be branded with the colourful stamp of ‘refugee' while I hold a balloon next to me to represent a whole sub-population of faceless individuals. And why is this the case? Firstly, for many misguided people my face seems to fit the image of community in a way that of a foreigner does not. Furthermore, refugees themselves are often reluctant to come forward in the public eye and challenge this, and who can blame them given the public backlash these issues often face: it is a vicious circle...

Don't let me fool you, beneath this bitter exterior lies a keen faith in campaigning as a vehicle for change, be it through petitions and parliamentary lobbying, anti-deportation campaigns, or the weekly demos outside Campsfield Detention Centre to let the people inside know that someone cares: ‘those drums give me hope'. My personal experience also suggests that campaigns can go a long way in changing public perception of asylum issues; the truth is unattractive as it stands, and sad as it is, refugee issues need dressing-up like any other.

More than anything, I think the strength lies in collaboration, and broad-based community groups like City of Sanctuary which mix awareness-raising with practical support are an example to us all. Individuals who are moved by human rights issues are often unfairly dismissed as idealistic, whilst those who choose to ignore them, the more realistic and rational majority. This has to be challenged, especially when pressing human rights issues such as asylum find themselves undermined by this categorisation.

When I was interviewed by a local radio station about the Still Human Still Here Campaign, for example, I was asked whether I thought our cultural event was not simply playing up to a stereotype of ‘bearded-hippy-lesbians'. I was appalled. Is this really how our nation perceives multiculturalism? These ‘bearded hippy lesbians' were not just students and Glastonbury-goers, these were performers from the local community - African drummers, South African gumboot dancers, a poet bravely describing his personal experience of seeking sanctuary... Whilst aware of stereotypes associated with human rights activists, I was shocked to see this label attached to an event which had received such broad support in the local community, support which included businesses, schools, charities, the council, our local MP, the mayor....but apparently not the media.

It is clear that all sorts of prejudices continue to undermine campaigns in this field but when we are successful in breaking through the noise, the results are invaluable. In Oxford, it is imperative that we keep campaigning side-by-side with representatives from our local refugee community and that as well as raising awareness of the issues at stake, we stand together in solidarity to celebrate their contribution to society. This in itself testifies to the possibilities for productive integration.

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