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As I get older, I haven’t moved to the right, politically, not a millimetre. I haven’t reneged on the feminism that I embraced in my early twenties, or the anti-racism that I learned from my parents as a young child. I’m as idealistic as I ever was, despite all that I know, have seen, have learned in over half a century. But I’m less likely than ever to subscribe to any hard-line view on anything. I don’t reject all -isms – I have no hesitation in declaring myself as a feminist and as a humanist, but both (to me) are pretty broad churches (if you’ll pardon the expression).
One reason for this is empathy. I suspect that the more empathetic one is, the harder it is to sign up wholeheartedly to any ideology, because sooner or later one finds oneself looking into the eyes of another human being, signed up just as wholeheartedly to a different ideology, but yet with whom one feels affinity.
That isn’t to say that all values are relative and that ‘everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’ or any such vacuous non-thought. Just that all moral and political questions, every issue that rears its head and demands that one take a view and take a stand, must be viewed through that lens, the one that allows you to feel what the people on the other side might be feeling. You might not shift an inch, you might be confirmed in your own convictions but they will be tempered and informed by that insight.
In Caitlin Moran’s marvellous and deliriously rude novel How to Build a Girl, her protagonist says:’Perhaps I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.’
Just be kind.
I know, I know. Far too simple. But as a starting point, as a touchstone, it’s actually pretty radical.
Everything I’ve learned in my working life has suggested to me that departments, organisations of whatever kind, run better for a bit of kindness. A recognition that all of us, whether we’re the cleaner or the VC, are breakable, and that for all of us the world is difficult. That if people aren’t achieving what we expect them to, a bit of kindness, a bit of empathy, may unlock the reasons and enable us to see a way to help them. It’s not always going to work, and sometimes what the person needs and what the organisation needs is not reconcilable. But I absolutely believe – and this is based on thirty years experience of managing people, fifteen years of dealing with harassment cases, and nearly forty of being managed myself – that we have nothing to lose by being kind.
I’ve seen, and have been on the receiving end of, styles of management that pride themselves on being tough, that hide behind procedures rather than engage with people, that imagine that tacking the mantra ‘we recognise that this is a difficult time for you and that you may wish to ring this helpline…’ on to a message is sufficient to fulfil a duty of care. And I know how counter-productive these approaches are. They destroy trust, they batter confidence, they damage health.
Beyond the world of work, I see the viciousness of some of the current internecine struggles within the feminist movement, and I despair, because so much energy seems to be being expended on being unkind, on attributing the worst motives to the other side, and – or so it seems to me, from the sidelines – doing anything other than look into the eyes of another human being and recognising that they, like you, are breakable, and just being kind.
Of course I’m not daft enough to imagine that this approach will end the horror in Gaza, or in Iraq. It’s too late for kindness alone. But in the worst places, the most appalling situations, in the face of real evil, kindness can still do something powerful. In occupied France, the citizens of Le Chambon sur Lignon took it upon themselves, inspired by their pastor Andre Trocmé, to provide a hiding place for refugees, most of them Jews.
There does not seem to have been any coordinated discussion of whether or how they would do this. It seems to have developed organically – as people arrived, initially more or less at random, and then increasingly as word spread that this was a place where they might be safe, the community found space for them, worked out systems for alerting everyone to impending raids, trained up forgers and guides to prepare false IDs and to escort people over the border to Switzerland. Around 3,500 people were saved. A drop in the ocean, obviously, but there were others – in Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, the inhabitants resolved that every household would hide one Jewish family or at least one Jew.
Even where the rescue of Jews was supported by governments and/or organised resistance movements, or inspired by an influential and charismatic leader within a community, it was hugely dependent on individual acts of kindness, on individuals choosing to help people rather than to obey orders or save their own skins. When there was no such structured support, individual acts of kindness were all that kept many people alive. Ronald Rosbottom’s recent account of occupied Paris says – rightly – that there is no record of individual police officers protesting or refusing to cooperate with the Vichy government’s plans to arrest and deport Jews. However, given that the police had detailed records, knew where all the Jews were, and had planned the raid meticulously, how is it that the total arrested and deported was so far below target? How is it that resistance groups were able to circulate flyers around the city warning of the impending raid? That can only have been because individual police officers decided to do what they could, discreetly, and pass on what they knew, and even as the round-up progressed, to create opportunities for people to hide or escape. What made them take this risk? Their actions don’t amount to much in the scheme of things, when compared with other acts of heroism, they’re compromised and limited in their effects, but it seems to me that they are examples of people trying, in an impossible situation, to be kind, In Yolande Mukagasana’s compelling account of surviving the Rwandan genocide, it’s striking how some people that she might have expected would help her turned her away, and others, who had no particular reason to help, did what they could, from choosing not to see or recognise her, choosing not to alert the interahamwe, to hiding and feeding her, whilst the killing went on all around them.
What made the difference? I find myself far more interested in what makes people do the right thing, what prompts those acts of generosity and kindness in situations where such things are dangerous, rather than what makes people do evil. We know that hatred is infectious, that it can be taught, that when it is fed insidiously into the language and images that we absorb without even realising, it can begin to seem normal. But generosity and kindness can be taught too, and can be just as catching.
Just as the people who go along with evil are not monsters, those who won’t aren’t saints. Some of them have religious faith, others don’t. Some have strong political beliefs, others don’t. Whilst those things may provide motivation, and may provide a rationale for doing the decent thing, I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation, as this behaviour crosses all such divides, just as evil does. They may have a more strongly developed sense of fairness, that instinct that makes one feel ‘that is not right’. They may be more empathetic and find it impossible not to feel what it would be like to be hunted, threatened, vilified. But these are not purely innate qualities – we start off identifying unfairness when it is unfair to us, and as we mature we learn to extrapolate that to others, if we’re encouraged to do so. And empathy can be nourished, if it’s seen as something valuable, something powerful.
We need to nurture those qualities. We need people who give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, who care about other people because they are people, whichever side they’re on. And we need idealism, because that opens us up to the possibilities of hope, and joy, and people being the best they can be. To go back to Caitlin Moran, ‘when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. … Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance, in this armour.’ And you can’t love either.
When we empathise, we can’t be deliberately cruel, because it hurts us to hurt someone else. That may not in itself be morality, but it teaches us morality. We know that harsh words cause other people pain because we feel that pain. We may cause pain in anger, but we regret it, it haunts us if we have done so. That doesn’t mean we’re always nice, that doesn’t mean we can’t have hard conversations with people, and tell them things that we know will hurt them, but the way we do that will be informed by our understanding of what it will feel like to be them, hearing this.
I’ve quoted this before, from Joss Whedon’s Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
So it’s not daft, soft, or naive. It’s vital, it’s difficult and it can be dangerous.
Just be kind.
Peter Grose – The Greatest Escape: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives from the Nazis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2014)
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl (Harper, 2014)
Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)
Ronald Rosbottom – When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation (Little, Brown & Co, 2014)
Once a year, for the last four years, my city has been taken over by music. In the parks, the pubs, the squares, the cafes, the galleries, even the Cathedral, bands known and unknown have played, and Sheffield people – and visitors from further afield – have listened, cheered, and danced.
I love this city anyway, for its hills, its green places, the way in which it manages to be not just a metropolis but a collection of villages grouped around a vibrant cultural centre. Fill it with music and I am besotted.
It used to be free, and it couldn’t stay that way, sadly. But lots of it still is, and I paid £15 for the privilege of seeing 18 bands last weekend, constrained only by my own stamina, the necessity of spending a little time on boring necessities such as shopping and laundry, and the logistics of getting from one venue to another to see everyone I might have wanted to see.
The sunshine helped of course, and the mood, wherever we went, seemed to be as sunny as the weather. The police reported – well, nothing really. There were grumbles from people who’d bought tickets and didn’t get in to see the big names on Devonshire Green – but if you buy a Glasto ticket (at a somewhat greater cost), does that guarantee you’ll see the headliners? I don’t think so. And there were some late timetable changes which inevitably meant disappointments too. But it was a blast, and a thoroughly joyous weekend.
And the best of it? Unquestionably Malian band Songhoy Blues, playing in the Millennium Gallery on Saturday night. I’d resisted the calls from most bands I’d seen to tell them if I was having a good time, or if I was ready, or to clap along. But when Aliou Toure asked us all ‘You like?’, we told him in no uncertain terms that yes, we did, we liked.
West African music moves me so deeply partly because of my childhood in Ghana, and later in Nigeria. As a small child living near the University campus in Kumasi, we heard the highlife music drifting over from the student residences, a hypnotic blend of Latin sounds and indigenous Ghanaian rhythms. And in Northern Nigeria at the end of Ramadan I watched Tuareg horsemen in blue robes and headdresses charging down the main drag, magnificent and unforgettable.
Over the years I’ve listened to music from all over that continent – many years back I saw the Bhundhu Boys from Zimbabwe and S E Rogie from Sierra Leone live at the Leadmill, and the CD collection (and my iPod running selection) includes King Sunny Ade, Youssou n’Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, Habib Koite, Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure and others.
More than any other African music, I come back to the sounds of Mali. Partly it’s because I love the blues, and in Malian music you hear that, the source of the blues, its DNA (as Martin Scorsese put it). There’s immense variety in the music of Mali, the soul of Salif Keita, desert blues from Tinariwen, hints of flamenco in Habib Koite or Toumani Diabete – rich in influences from and on other musical traditions, but always clearly Mali.
This sublime musical culture has been threatened in recent years but on the evidence of last weekend it is strong, gorgeous, joyous. Songhoy Blues made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.
My Tramlines 2014 was:
Friday 25 July – Shy Nature (Sheffield Cathedral), Allusondrugs (Millennium Gallery), The Wedding Present (Leadmill)
Saturday 26 July – Nordic Giants (City Hall), John T Angle & the Spirit Levels, Laurel Canyons (Cathedral), The Indecision, KOG (Peace Gardens), Juffage, Songhoy Blues (Millennium Gallery)
Sunday 27 July – Max Restraino, Kane’d, Dresden Saints, Broken Saints (Western Park), Woman’s Hour (Cathedral), Blossomer, Neil McSweeney, TOY (Leadmill)
To all of the musicians, and to everyone who made it happen,
Posted in Football on July 12, 2014
I’ve written quite a bit about football over the couple of years that I’ve been blogging. But I’ve said next to nothing about what happens on the pitch. I’ve talked about what happened on the terraces one day in April 1989, and the quarter-century aftermath. I’ve talked about the various nations competing in the World Cup and their history and politics in terms of the displaced people across the globe. But the game itself?
I can talk about music, though I’m not a musician, I can talk about art though I’m no artist. But I can’t talk about football, the playing of the game, without it sounding second-hand, words and phrases borrowed from the pundits on the telly or the pundits in my own life.
Nonetheless it’s played an important part in my life, still does. I barely knew the game existed until the early 70s, when the family moved to Nottinghamshire, and my brothers determined that our loyalties would henceforth belong to Nottingham Forest. And I went along on a Saturday, wearing the scarf that I knitted myself (the only piece of knitting I ever finished, at one time embroidered with the names of the players) at least until the final whistle blew and we hid our scarves away and legged it to the bus station. I stood on the Trent End, being pushed one way and another, pressed up against the barriers till it hurt, sometimes. I went along to watch them train in between home games, to watch the reserves play, to get their autographs. I loved the atmosphere, until the violence – always simmering – seemed to come every week to the boil, and I was too afraid and too sick to love it any more.
Reading Danny Rhodes’ Fan brought it all back. He writes about following Forest, and I recognise everything he describes. But at the same time my experience of being a football fan was so different – being a girl, a swotty, geeky girl at that, I could never have been part of the beery sweary scrappy bloke culture.
I never lived for it, but I loved it. Time was I knew all the names, the numbers, the fixtures, the results. Time was I could recognise every player on the cards my brothers collected (the Panini stickers of their day) – and I was tested on this regularly and rigorously. I lost that over the years, lost touch with the minutiae of the team and the game, but never stopped checking the results, and feeling a glimmer of excitement if we were doing well in a Cup or league, or – at least as often – frustration and gloom if we weren’t.
Looking back, I’d thought that ‘my’ Forest era was the glory years of Clough, European cups and league triumphs. But in fact, the years when I was going most Saturdays, when I was the most engaged and invested, were before that. In fact, I supported Forest under three managers before Clough & Taylor arrived (Gillies, Mackay and Brown), and saw them relegated in ’72 to the then 2nd division.
Clough came in ’75, the year I went up to University in Sheffield, and my match attendance plummeted. But I still went, when I could, and saw two League Cup finals (victory over Southampton, defeat to Wolves), and a European cup tie against Grasshoppers Zurich. And I saw the players who Clough inspired to greatness, many of whom I’d been watching in the reserves before Clough saw what they could be capable of and gave them the chance to achieve it. It’s been a pretty bumpy ride since then, and most seasons I apologise to my son for making him a Forest fan – I may have seen some dire, desperate games and some crushing defeats, but I also saw the team when they were the best.
So I can reminisce, but I can’t pontificate about the game. I know genius when I see it – old clips of Best, new clips of Messi, and my memories of seeing John Robertson, short stocky guy, invisible on the left wing until he suddenly took off and scored before the opposition had even registered his presence. Clough said ‘give him a ball and a yard of grass, and he was an artist’, but also that he was (or had initially appeared to be), an ‘unfit, uninterested waste of time’, perhaps the supreme example of Clough’s own genius.
But the offside rule is something I understand only fleetingly and I never spot an offside before it’s called. And I can’t analyse – I’m always kind of surprised and pleased when my general impressions of possession and dominance are confirmed by the ‘experts’ and the on-screen stats. Instead I get caught up with the ebb and flow, the swell of the crowd’s noise and the dying away when the moment is lost, the grace and athleticism, the exhilaration and despair. I can share in that, and I’ve wept over results before now, most recently when Ghana were knocked out of the last World Cup thanks to a certain Uruguayan’s blatant hand-ball.
But when the City Ground crowd invites me to join in and assert that I hate Derby, or Leicester, or anyone else, I can’t do it. I don’t recall racist chanting on the terraces at Forest – and I do recall leaflets on the seats at a reserve game vigorously opposing the National Front and their calls for Viv Anderson to go back where he came from (as Clough pointed out, that would be Clifton, about 15 mins drive from the City Ground) – but I know that black footballers in Britain were subjected to vile abuse, and that this still happens in many European countries. I know that there are aspects of the game that are profoundly ugly.
I saw that in the violence that became endemic in the game – people who turned up for the fight, not for the football, driving other spectators away, and creating the vicious circle of aggressive policing, media contempt and political rhetoric that led us inexorably to Hillsborough. I know that the tribal loyalties that make following a football team so emotional can be dangerous, and are dangerous when they’re linked to other loyalties – religious, ethnic, political. And there’s a dispiriting cynicism in the way the game is played (nothing new, whenever I see the perpetrator of a blatant foul turning to the ref with an expression of affronted innocence, I think of Leeds’ Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke).
Yet, despite all that, there’s something wonderful about it all. The experience of being at a match (Premier league, championship or Sunday junior league) is unlike anything else I do. If I’m at a gig, probably the closest thing, where one is caught up in the collective experience, responding emotionally and vocally to what’s happening on stage, still, I know that it’s not going to end with the band I’ve come to see being humiliated and defeated. Every football match presents that possibility.
And all of the above is why Hillsborough is seared into my soul. I wasn’t there. But I stood in my kitchen, just across the valley, watching Grandstand, trying to figure out what was happening. And later, watching as the death toll crept higher and higher. And then hearing the way the narrative twisted – so soon – into the familiar territory of blame. I wasn’t there but it haunted me, and still does. Because it sums up what British football had become – the adversarial policing, the pens that crushed the life out of so many, and the contempt for the fans that allowed the lies to be believed, in the face of all the evidence, for so long.
I do feel some nostalgia for the days when I stood on the Trent End. It is so much safer now, so much tamer. And I’m glad of that, even whilst I feel the loss of the visceral excitement that was part of the experience then. Because that’s forever associated with the reasons I stopped going to matches. And, overwhelmingly, with 96 football supporters who never got home after the match, and the families who’ve had to fight for 25 years for the truth of what happened .
Can we find a middle ground? Can football be family friendly, safe, without being bloodless and corporate? The contradictions will always be there, I think. And I will always have this ambivalent relationship with the beautiful game but will be – can’t help it, couldn’t change it if I wanted to – Forest till I die …
Danny Rhodes, Fan, Arcadia Books, 2014
Posted in Refugees on June 22, 2014
As this year’s Refugee Week draws to a close, I’m reflecting on what effect the experience of displacement has on the children who have been the focus of this year’s event, children who have lost so much that is familiar and reassuring in their lives, had to face hunger, physical danger, separation from family. The photos of children in refugee camps, smiling for the camera, like children anywhere, should not lull us into believing they are and will be fine. They are safe, for now at least, they will be fed, and have access to medical attention, maybe even some chances to learn.
But what about their future?
Children are resilient, they’re tougher than you’d think, as all parents remind themselves on a regular basis. But how do those early experiences, that exposure to death and danger and horror, affect them as they grow?
We can draw upon the stories of an earlier generation of children whose parents entrusted them to strangers, to be transported across Europe and to be taken into the homes of other strangers, to be kept safe, in the hope of a reunion that for many was never to happen. We know of the confusion that many of them felt, about their past, their identity (not all Jewish children were fostered in Jewish homes); and of the trauma of separation from parents and family, and in so many cases, of the discovery post-war that parents and family had been swallowed up in the barbarity and were lost to them for ever.
Some of the children wrote and talked about their experiences, e.g. Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses (1964) fictionalised her experience growing up in five different English households, from the wealthy Orthodox Jewish Levines to the working-class Hoopers. There are a number of collections of memoirs, e.g. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2008, Bloomsbury/St Martins, New York & London) (edited by the daughter of a Kindertransport child). A collection of personal accounts can be found at the website at www.quaker.org.uk/kinder.
The artist Gustav Metzger’s work responded directly to the experience that would have been his, had he not escaped in 1939 – in 1961 when he was on trial for civil disobedience, he made an unusually personal statement:
I came to this country from Germany when 12 years old, my parents being Polish Jews, and I am grateful to the government for bringing me over. My parents disappeared in 1943 and I would have shared their fate. But the situation is now far more barbaric than Buchenwald, for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment. I have no other choice than to assert my right to live, and we have chosen, in this committee, a method of fighting which is the opposite of war – the principle of total non-violence.
Alison Jones’ introduction to his auto-destructive art, and particularly his Historic Photograph series, makes the link very clearly:
In 1961 on the South Bank in London he painted hydrochloric acid onto nylon canvasses wearing a gas mask and protective clothing, so that eventually the canvas disintegrated South Bank Demonstration. The demonstration was of an artwork being simultaneously created and destroyed. His second manifesto on Auto-Destructive Art stated ‘Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummelling to which individuals and masses are subjected…Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture – polishing to destruction point.’ (3)
The language and metaphors Metzger uses clearly have reference to the military machinery of the capitalist state. Writing about Metzger’s performance, Kristine Stiles describes the temporal structuring and timing of ‘South Bank Demonstration’ as symbolic of the artist’s personal relationship to the Nazi gas chambers.
Metzger formulated his theory precisely 20 years after he was sent to England as a child of 12 in 1939, following his family’s arrest by the Gestapo in Nuremburg. 20 seconds then is a temporal analog for the time it took to destroy his personal world by killing his family; 20 years, the time of gestation in his own auto-transformation.
Metzger has also been stateless since the 1940s, another clear political response to what was done to his family, first by removing their rights as citizens, and forcing them from their home, him to safety in England, his parents to death in Poland.
Stephanie (Steve) Shirley’s philanthropic activity – as a highly successful businesswoman, she used her money to fund pioneering work on autism, and her influence to counter sexism – is something she explicitly relates to her experience as an unaccompanied child refugee, which she says ‘gave me the drive to prove that my life had been worth saving’.
Writing about the ‘One Thousand Children‘ initiative, the American equivalent of the Kindertransport, Iris Posner comments that they have been ‘inordinately successful’. Perhaps the combination of the challenge of those early experiences and the sense of debt that Steve Shirley speaks about, have led such children to have a greater drive to succeed, and to give something back.
However, the Kindertransport and OTC children were lucky not just in being saved from destruction. They came to affluent, safe countries where they had access to the best medical care, the best educational opportunities and employment prospects. Many of their contemporaries, displaced in the chaos and brutality of wartime and postwar Europe, were not to have those chances. Like many of today’s child refugees, they lost everything.
Even those who are most cynical, who believe the lies and distortions disseminated almost daily it seems by sections of our national press, would surely see that the fate of these children must be a collective responsibility. UNHCR report that:
Almost half of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children and many spend their entire childhood far from home. Whether they are refugees, internally displaced, asylum-seekers or stateless, children are at a greater risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or forced military recruitment. They may also have witnessed or experienced violent acts and/or been separated from their families.
It’s a huge task, so daunting that one could throw up one’s hands and say, what can we do?
There are many organisations, around the world, who are doing what they can. Working in war zones and refugee camps, working to support children wherever they are re-settled, trying to give them the chance of a life.
To quote Sir Nicholas Winton, who himself was responsible for saving around 700 children from Nazi Europe, ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it’.
With the resources we have, collectively, it’s not impossible. It can’t be.
Playing today – Argentina, Bosnia
Fittingly for the last of my series of World Cup linked refugee stories, both of today’s have a football theme.
Bayan Mahmud fled ethnic violence in the north of Ghana, stowing away on a ship leaving Cape Coast, and ending up in Argentina. He was lucky, finding kindness from a member of the ship’s crew, and then from strangers who helped him get to Buenos Aires, and to get refugee status. Now, he’s on the Boca Juniors youth football team and hopes to one day be the first black player in the Argentine national team. Maybe next time…
Bosnia & Hercegovina
Dejan Cokorilo’s story of leaving Sarajevo for safety in Sweden – ‘The Civil War kidnapped our childhood. Our city was under siege, but somehow my parents found a way out. We found peace and freedom in a new country, far away from home.’
Meanwhile the Bosnian national team includes a number of players who at least temporarily fled their homes during the war – amongst them Miralem Pjanic, Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begović, Senad Lulic, Haris Medunjanin.
There’s an actual Refugee World Cup, in Manchester later this month. Details here:
and another took place in Sweden just before Rio as well:
Playing today: Italy, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Switzerland, France
The Italian island of Lampedusa is best known for being the primary European entry point for migrants, mainly coming from Africa. Last autumn, around 36o migrants died in the seas around the island, and over 30 000 have been rescued by Mare Nostrum. And the boats keep on setting sail, crammed with desperate people.
One of the most peaceful and stable countries in the region, Costa Rica hosts many refugees, mainly from Colombia and Nicaragua. Costa Rica took in many refugees from a range of other Latin American countries fleeing civil wars and dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s.
In recent years, growing numbers of people have sought asylum in Mexico, Canada and the United States, citing the threat of gang violence and forced recruitment in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
‘A 17-year-old boy who fled Honduras said, “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.'”‘
Jason Tanner reports on a photographic assignment for UNHCR on the Ecuador-Colombia border:
‘Over the course of four weeks I would be ferried, often at short notice and sometimes covertly, to meet with and photograph refugees fleeing persecution and violence from neighbouring Colombia. This fearful frontier town in Ecuador is often the first stepping off point for refugees seeking safety and security. Unfortunately, for many refugees, the reach of those responsible for the violence often extends deep beyond the porous borders of Latin America.’
Switzerland’s cherished neutrality during the Second World War was in part protected by rigorous border controls. Many refugees were turned back, including at least 20 000 Jews. Those who helped people to cross the border were subject to criminal proceedings, and it is only very recently that some of the sentences handed out to people who challenged the restrictions to smuggle desperate people across the frontier have been given pardons. See Aimée Stitelmann’s story here.
In September 1940, plans were being developed to enable Jewish children to get special visas to leave for the US. The plan was intended for children under 13, but older children (up to 16) were eligible to accompany their younger brothers and sisters. In March 1941, the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) at Montpellier sent a list of 500 children held in camps who were candidates for emigration. These children were released from the camps, and brought by OSE to await emigration, along with children who had been helped by the Rothschild Foundation, Secours Suisse and the AFSC. The first convoy of 101 children left Marseille in May 1941. The train stopped briefly at Oloron station, just by the Gurs camp, so that children could say goodbye to their parents. This was traumatic for all, and OSE did not continue with this practice. From France, the children travelled through Spain to Portugal, stayed for around a week whilst they received medical care and were vaccinated. At Lisbon, they boarded the SS Mouzinho, which took to the sea on 10 June 1941. They disembarked in New York where they were met and looked after by the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children. The OSE went on to organise an underground network to smuggle children out of France.
Rio Mavuba, a member of the French World Cup squad, was born on board a boat in international waters during the Angolan Civil War, and later stated that his birth certificate did not have a nationality on it, reading only “born at sea”. He received French nationality in September 2004.
Colombia, Ivory Coast, Uruguay, England, Japan, Greece
Colombia has one of the world’s largest populations of displaced people – somewhere between 2.6 and 4.3 million – due to ongoing armed conflict in the region.
See here for information on the photo project, Land of Light, undertaken by UNHCR Colombia and the Colombian photographer Santiago Escobar Jaramillo, which was realized through a series of workshops with displaced communities.
Bere Tassoumane’s journey from stateless person to state official.
Some who left Liberia for safety in Ivory Coast during its civil war later returned the hospitality when Ivory Coast went through the same terrible trauma. “During the Liberian war, refugees who left from Liberia to Ivory Coast stopped with people who also fled this Ivorian war,” Kolubah added. “So those who were hosted as Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast do not want their host to go to the camp. They want them to stay with them no matter what it is.”
Uruguay’s president has agreed to take 100 Syrian child refugees. The complexities of refugee politics are clear from this article – both in terms of the contribution relative to that of other nations, and to the problem as a whole, but also in terms of the way domestic politicians respond to even this ‘drop in the ocean’.
Refugee Action tells the stories of some of the refugees they work with, and the struggles they face in the UK.
I am, probably, more critical of my own country’s response on refugee and asylum issues, than of most others. I expect more, I hope for more. And there is so much to be disappointed, or angry, about. I had to make a mental readjustment, however, talking to a taxi driver yesterday – father from Djibouti, mother from Britain, born in Dubai, and in no doubt at all that this was the place to be, a generous and welcoming society. I found myself giving ground, acknowledging, I hope not too grudgingly, that it was good, even if I believed it could be better. He’d have passed Tebbitt’s cricket test too, with a higher score than me…
Even a wealthy, peaceful nation, which tends not to persecute its citizens, can encounter a refugee crisis as the result of natural disaster. The tsunami in 2011 left many homeless and facing desperate conditions. ‘Freezing winds, hail storms and thick snow are the latest threats to 430,000 beleaguered survivors of northern Japan‘s week-long cascade of disasters. After a massive earthquake, devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis, many people made homeless are now facing icy weather, with temperatures forecast to plunge to –5C (23F).’ (Guardian, March 2011).
Syrian refugee Hussein finds safety in Greece.
In 1923, Greeks from Asia Minor were evacuated or relocated in Greece following the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations signed in Lausanne. This followed a period of brutal massacres and ‘ethnic cleansing’ instigated by the government of the Ottoman Empire. The first census after the evacuations showed the number of Greeks of Asia Minor origin to be 1,164,267. Descendants of the refugees took part in the great Greek migrations of the interwar period, as well as the large immigrations to the United States, Australia and Germany in the 1960s-1970s. Today, about 40% of the population of Greece claims full or partial descent from the Asia Minor refugees; as does an almost equal percentage of diasporan Greeks.