Master: Is the future going to be all girl?
Doctor: We can only hope.
With hindsight it was obvious this regeneration was going to be the one. The one that brought us a woman Doctor.
We’d seen it established that Time Lord regenerations can involve a change of gender as well as of height, hair colour, apparent age and so on. We’d engaged with the Master/Missy conundrum.
DOCTOR: She was my first friend, always so brilliant, from the first day at the Academy. So fast, so funny. She was my man crush.
BILL: I’m sorry?
DOCTOR: Yeah, I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.
BILL: So, the Time Lords, bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing, then, yeah?
DOCTOR: We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.
BILL: But you still call yourselves Time Lords?
DOCTOR: Yeah. Shut up.
With lines like the above, we were being set up to welcome (or not) a woman to the role. Still, at some level, at least until a couple of days before the announcement, I really thought they might row back from that and say no, not yet, not this time. I really wasn’t sure they had the bottle to do this.
There’s been a lot of rather predictable frothing at the mouth, harrumphing and incipient apoplexy, with claims that this is the BBC surrendering to some mysterious all-powerful Political Correctness lobby (‘Murdered a part of our culture for feminazi political correctness ideology!’ ‘Doctor Who … didn’t die nobly as you might expect. He was murdered by Political Correctness’). That’s best ignored, by and large. I fear that Jodie Whitaker will have to contend with worse than that, and with personalised unpleasantness, but I’m sure she’s well aware and will be ready for the haters.
Not everyone who dislikes the change is of this breed, of course. There has to be a core of Doctorness with each regeneration, and some feel that maleness is a part of that. I disagree, but I suspect that many of those people, if they genuinely love the programme, will continue to watch and will be won over. Another response was that whilst of course boys have far more heroic role models in popular culture to emulate and be inspired by than girls do, the Doctor is different, and valuable because of the ways in which he is different. I do see the need for boys to have role models who aren’t all about action and fighting (even fighting for Good against Evil), but part of what makes the Doctor different, for me, is that gender roles and stereotypes simply aren’t (or shouldn’t be) relevant.
A plethora of girls and women have regarded the Doctor as a role model, and identified with him, over Doctor Who’s 50 year span, whilst he’s regenerated, repeatedly, as a man. The Doctor is still, no doubt, going to be the Doctor as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker – alien, two hearts, both of gold, funny, witty, snarky, capricious, kind, adventurous. (Juniper Fish, Doctor Who Forum)
The Doctor can and should be a role model for both boys and girls, in a way that Captain America or Batman can’t quite be – and probably Wonder Woman and Buffy can’t quite be role models for boys either. So, the Doctor can continue to inspire boys whilst giving girls and women a whole new image of how to be wise, and brave, how to save the world, to do what’s right, to be kind. Girls need to develop the confidence to take the lead roles, not to assume that a hero/a protector is by default male.
Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
Funnily enough, whilst the Outraged/Betrayed/Will Never Watch Again lobby were as loud and silly as one might have expected, overall what I found on Twitter was a mix of sheer delight, excited anticipation – and a different kind of silliness. See the #TardisFullOfBras hashtag, for example – someone took a hostile Daily Mail comment and turned it around, so that it’s full of fan art and daft jokes (and bras). That’s the way to go, I think.
There’s little point in trying to engage with someone who throws ‘feminazi’ into the conversation simply because someone gives a job to a woman that has been previously held by a man. There’s little point in trying to unpack the hotchpotch of false analogies and fake news and mythology that is evoked whenever the term ‘political correctness’ is used. And if someone believes that ‘social justice warrior’ is an insult, we don’t really have a lot to talk about.
What matters here, to me, is the delight that this news has brought to so many of us. It’s only a story, but stories are the most powerful things in the world.
Stories can make us fly.
We need stories, and we need heroes. And if we can’t immediately see around us the heroes we need, we build them. It seems that we are having a real moment here.
When I wrote about Wonder Woman, only a week or so ago, I did not know – though I hoped – that the 13th Doctor would be a woman. They’re quite different of course, but what is so glorious is that now, right now, there are two more in the pantheon of women who can, women who can stand up, will stand up. We have a woman (OK, a demi-god) who uses superhuman physical strength, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity, and another (OK, a Gallifreyan Time Lord) who uses the wisdom of centuries and galaxies, wit and invention and intellect, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity.
without hope, without reward, without witness
I felt when I was watching Wonder Woman like punching the air and having a bit of a cry at the same time, and when I think about the Doctor’s next regeneration, I feel much the same. Of course it is vital that the stories are well written, that the wit and humour is there, as well as the thrills and chills. Of course it is vital that the gender thing is dealt with intelligently, that stereotypes are undermined or dismissed with humour and that the Doctor is and remains Doctorly, demonstrating both difference and continuity as each new incumbent has done over the last 50 years.
It is perhaps even more vital that the stories are strong because there are those who (even though they may have vowed never to watch it again) will be waiting for it to fail, wanting to say that they told us so, that it could never work, that the Doctor can’t be a woman. If Jodie kicks it out of the park, as we hope and believe she will, then each regen that follows can be whoever seems right at the time and whoever takes it on will be critiqued for their ability and not for their gender.
Meantime, we’re loving this moment. Loving it for ourselves and for our daughters, nieces, granddaughters, all the young women who can now enjoy Doctor Who in a different way, who can take on the lead role in playground games. Not just companions or assistants but The Doctor.
My love for Doctor Who is, I realise, a bit ridiculous but I don’t bloody care because we all need escapism sometimes and, as my often tested loyalty to lost causes show, my love is nothing if not tenacious. At primary school I distinctly remember the humiliation of a school assembly where some of us were asked to share our pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. A Timelord was not an appropriate aspiration for a girl apparently and the piss was duly ripped. Not the first, worst or only time youngling (or indeed “grown-up” me) encountered sexism and ridiculous gender stereotypes but, because as a troubled kid my fantasy life was a refuge and a solace, one of the hardest stings. Anyway, fuck that nonsense because anything can happen with a Tardis and hooray for progress and little girls being allowed imaginations. And no, that does not come at the expense of little boys at all, and yes, I am really sorry Capaldi and Bill are gone because when they got the scripts they were brilliant and that, actually, is the heart of what I want. Good writing, please, please, please (and obviously for me to get a ride in there somewhere with them, because what is the Doctor if not an intergalactic anarcho-flaneuse who needs a bit more glitter?) (Morag Rose)
Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world. (Laurie Penny, The New Statesman)
MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.
Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”
Diana: “I am the man who can.”
NB What follows contains some spoilers… Caveat lector.
It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful. I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar. But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.
And she did.
It’s not that she’s the first or the only. She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies. But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.
And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey. The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really. But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out. There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength. And there’s always and forever Buffy.
Wonder Woman is different. First off, she’s a half-god. Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.
The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.
Of course all these women are beautiful. But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent. Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.
Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous. That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere. (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do. The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)
She’s presented, in some ways, as naive. That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira. That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”
I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:
It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.
Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.
without hope, without reward, without witness
What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira. It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it. But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.
Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War. But I think actually that’s right. The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be. The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme). So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself. Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.
Interestingly, whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice. Murky, messy, or what…
We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this. We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength. But we can be inspired by her moral strength. That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).
But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places. That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.
And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons. From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up. … Are you ready to be strong?
We’re living in strange times. Last year’s Refugee Week took place in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder, and midway through, we found out the outcome of the EU referendum, which for so many of us, perhaps falsely reassured by the predominance of Remain sympathies in our social media bubbles, was profoundly shocking, as well as filling us with dismay and fear about the future. Our world was further shaken in November by the outcome of the US election – again, we were unprepared for a Trump victory, and fearful of the impact it would have – we still are, although straightforward incompetence and inefficiency seem to have mitigated some of the potential harm so far.
This week Refugee Week takes place in the aftermath of terrorist attacks which have claimed innocent lives in Manchester, on Westminster and London bridges, in Borough Market and Finsbury Park. And then there’s Grenfell Tower, a human tragedy of unbearable proportions. That’s not even to mention a General Election and the start of the Brexit talks.
This time last year I wrote these words, which are still pertinent:
I said a week ago when I started my annual Refugee Week blogathon that it felt different this year. As Refugee Week draws to a close it feels unimaginably different again. We are in, as so many people said during the long hours as the result of the referendum emerged, uncharted territory. We are in uncertain times.
For refugees and asylum seekers there is no charted territory, there are no certain times. But as anecdotal evidence mounts of racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised and emboldened by the vote to leave the EU, as we wait for those who would lead us into this brave new world to give us a clue as to what it will be like, I know I am not alone in being afraid. … But many of us do share the belief that how we treat people who seek sanctuary from war, persecution and starvation is a measure of what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are. And many of us do believe that generosity, empathy, compassion are qualities that represent the best that we can be, individually and collectively.
So as this Refugee Week ends we will be continuing to say that refugees are welcome, saying it louder if we need to, if the voices against us are more numerous or more vociferous.
I’ve returned this year to some of the themes I regularly write about. I’ve revisited the work of Cara with at-risk academics, for example, prompted by my own University’s engagement with their current campaigns and its funding of scholarships and fellowships for refugee academics and students. I’ve talked again about child refugees – remembering the Kindertransport in light of this government’s shameful reneging on the Dubs amendment.
I’ve tried to celebrate the work of so many superb organisations, large and small, who are working to support refugees around the world and here in the UK, addressing the politics and the practicalities, making a huge difference against the odds.
Each year I approach this entirely self-imposed task – to post every day during Refugee Week about some aspect of the crisis faced by so many millions of people forced to flee their homes – with a certain amount of trepidation. Who do I think I am, really, to speak about these things? I’m no expert, I’m merely a keyboard activist, I have no direct personal experience of the things I write about. And who am I writing for? Preaching to the choir, surely, given that my readers, my social media contacts, by and large are people who share my world view.
But as much as I berate myself for hubris in taking the task on, I cannot relinquish it. I write, that’s what I do. I use this blog to talk to whoever might be listening – and if I change no one’s mind, perhaps the information and ideas and links that I gather for each piece will be useful to someone else, somewhere along that chain of communication that we build as we share and retweet – about the things I care about and the things that trouble and grieve me. And this issue is something I care about, passionately.
Perhaps it is personal, after all. My first Refugee Week blogathon recalled events which, even though I cannot claim to have directly witnessed them, or even to truly remember them, still shaped me:
During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria. Many more fled to escape the massacres. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.
As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping. I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time. I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could. But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity. I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success. I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel. I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.
As a teenager I pieced these stories together, from the recollections that my parents were finally willing to share without holding back, and the fragmentary memories that I did have suddenly made sense. And I’ve been piecing it together ever since, as I see the people who fled from the town I lived in over and over again, in the faces of those seeking refuge from war and persecution today, as I see them in the faces of those who fled war and persecution generations ago.
And once you do that, you become aware of the connections, of the way in which everything that is happening around the world is interlinked.
As Daesh suffer military defeats and the loss of their territory, they increase their terrorist attacks in the west but far more often in the Middle East and Africa, killing ‘Crusaders’ but far more often Muslims who happen to be the wrong sort of Muslim. And as one of the major forces creating refugees, they are also used as a reason to mistrust those very refugees. Because, so they say, they could have pretended to be refugees, paid a fortune to traffickers, risked drowning in the Med, lived on minimal rations in a refugee camp, simply in order to launch attacks in European cities… The uncomfortable truth, that attacks in European cities have been carried out by long-term residents of those cities, isn’t allowed to disturb the anti-refugee narrative, and the call in the wake of every attack for borders to be closed, etc.
The first officially confirmed casualty of the Grenfell Tower disaster was Mohammad Alhajali, a refugee from Syria, who had survived civil war and the perilous journey to the UK, only to die in his own home as a result of an accidental fire and the criminal neglect of fire safety in social housing.
And we learned that one reason for the difficulty and delays in identifying the dead, or even coming up with a reliable total of those who perished, was that there may well have been people living in Grenfell Tower who were ‘off the radar’, worried about their immigration status, unable to afford their own accommodation and so unofficially staying with friends or family but not on any list of tenants. People like asylum seekers (those waiting for a decision, and those who have been refused), and those newly granted refugee status who have not yet got the paperwork together to get a place of their own. Grenfell Tower sheds a harsh light on so many aspects of our society – the calls for a ‘bonfire of red tape’, the mockery of ‘health & safety gone mad’, the contempt of the wealthy and privileged for those on the margins – the culture of ‘us and them’.
I think of this, from a rather wonderful Twitter account:
“I am a citizen of the world.““Citizen of nowhere. You must pick an ‘us’ to be.”“I did.”“All humanity? Nonsense. That leaves no ‘them’.”
There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.
That really is the heart of it all. We can refuse the ‘us and them’, we can assert that it’s all us. It’s the only way to be human, really.
The refugee crises which have characterised our age (as if there has ever been a time when people were not forced by war, persecution or natural disaster to leave their homes and seek safety in strange lands) have inspired artists throughout the generations to attempt, through different media and in different styles, to portray the plight of the refugee.
Tamara de Lempicka portrays two women refugees from the fighting in Spain, in something of a departure from her normal high society subject matter. Felix Nussbaum painted The Refugee drawing on his own experience. As a German Jew, Nussbaum was studying in Rome when the Nazis came to power, and spent the next ten years in exile in Belgium, going into hiding during the Occupation. He and his wife were arrested in 1944 and were murdered in Auschwitz. His painting powerfully depicts the desolation of exile, and the sense of a world of potential freedom and safety (the globe and the open window) that is visible but out of reach.
In much more recent times, we can see the work of Syrian women refugees, working with visual artists Aglaia Haritz from Switzerland and Abdelaziz Zerrou from Morocco, on a project Embroiderers of Actuality. They asked women in different locations to create embroidery, which they then use as inspiration and/or material for their own images and sculptures.
One of the images exhibited by the Refugee Art Project is Alwy Fadhel’s instant coffee painting, Endurance, by Alwy Fadhel.
The technique of painting with instant coffee powder diluted with water was started by an Iraqi refugee in Australian immigration detention who enjoyed painting and used the resources available in detention to do so. He taught the technique to fellow detainee Alwy Fadhel, who became the principal coffee artist and contributed to making the technique a tradition inside the detention center where he was held.
Syrian artist, Abdalla Al Omari, who has refugee status in Belgium, has re-imagined US President Donald Trump and 10 other world leaders as refugees in a series of paintings (The Vulnerability Series) currently on display in Dubai. The images draw on his own experience with displacement.
Giles Duley, a photojournalist, has recorded some of the stories of the refugees travelling from the Middle East to Europe in 2015.
The UNHCR gave me the greatest brief ever given to a photographer – just follow your heart. So, rather than try to cover the whole crisis, I tried to cover a few stories within it and that was how I kept my focus. There is no such thing as truth in photography, which is why the book has the title I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See. As soon as I go to one beach and choose one person to photograph, I’ve made a decision and I’ve ruled out thousands of other stories. Politicians and the media often try to simplify the narrative, but the fact is, if you have a million people crossing into Europe, you have a million different stories. … I’ve worked in Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, and have seen some of the worst of humanity, and yet I found myself standing on those beaches in floods of tears. It was hard initially to work out what was different. What was it I was seeing that I hadn’t seen before? I’ve seen a lot of refugee camps, but they are generally static places. What I’ve never seen is people moving en masse like that, putting their lives on the line, risking everything for freedom, for safety. To see the fear on their faces, but also the relief that they’d finally made it, was completely overwhelming.
Alketa Xhafa Mripa was living in the UK and studying Art at Central Saint Martins when the war in Kosovo broke out in 1998.
As a result, she had no choice but to seek refugee status in the UK. While Alketa didn’t flee her country, she faced the very real issue of being removed from her home. This fostered her fascination with the themes of identity, history and memory, with a unique focus on women’s issues. Her most recent project, Fancy a tea with a refugee?, is a mobile installation that tours the country, inviting people to share their stories and thoughts about migrants, refugees and displacement.
And under the sea, a powerful image of the fate of so many refugees attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, in Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculpture The Raft of the Lampedusa, a sculpted boat carrying the figures of 13 refugees. It’s part of an underwater museum, Museo Atlantico, in Lanzarote.
From painting to sculpture, embroidery to installation, and finally (in this brief and inadequate review of the refugee crisis in art), to the graphic novel.
French author and illustrator double act Bessora and Barroux share their new graphic novel Alpha, the story of a migrant desperately searching for his family.
one man – another refugee – said to us, ‘This is my story.’ With comics, people can project their own experiences on to these simple drawings and make them their own.
Home to 80,000 people. Intended as a temporary, transitory place, but evolving in to a long-term home for so many displaced by war. It’s Jordan’s fourth biggest city. Seen from above, as it is often is, to emphasise its sprawling scale, it’s easy to forget that in that city, as in any city, people are living their lives.
We use the refugee camp as a symbol of the challenge of mass migration, and of the desperate needs of those who live there. The people who did, once, lead lives very much like our own, until war drove them out. They were farmers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses and builders. They still can be.
Within the camp, babies are born, children grow up, people get sick, women have periods, all of the normal events of life take place here too. All of these things present greater challenges when you’re living in a place that wasn’t intended to be a city, that was only meant to house you for a short time, until you could safely go home, or until some other place was found for you to move on to.
And so those agencies working within the camp are trying to address these everyday problems, to provide for health and education, to ensure access to basic facilities. But this isn’t a one-way process. Because to solve the everyday problems in the camp they are working with, and not just for, the people in the camp.
Obviously not everyone living there has the kind of skills that can be pressed into service to help build the resources that the communities need, and not everyone is well and strong enough after the physical and mental traumas of flight to contribute in this way. But as a transit camp becomes a city the people living there can become again the people they were at home, can be part of the process of building and healing and problem-solving.
That’s what researchers from the University of Sheffield have found. The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures is an ambitious and innovative collaboration between the University of Sheffield and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. Their sustainability research creates knowledge and connects it to policy debates on how to build a fairer world and save natural resources for future generations.
And under the auspices of the Grantham Centre, innovative solutions to everyday problems are being developed, in collaboration with the people of Zaatari. Tony Ryan, the Director of the Centre, has been working with Helen Storey from the London College of Fashion, on resource use and repurposing in conflict zones, and on specific questions from the UNHCR about the design and manufacture of all kinds of things that we take for granted, like sanitary ware, make-up and bicycles. Resources are scarce in the camp, where 80,000 people share 6 sq km of space, and nothing is left to waste.
One farmer collected pots of the salty local soil and washed it repeatedly till the salt crystals were cleared away, so that he could use it to grow herbs. And polymer foams from old mattresses are being developed for use as artificial soil to grow crops.
Make no mistake, the people who end up in these camps face daily struggles that many of us cannot imagine. But those I met embodied values that are often forgotten by those of us in more privileged parts of the world: an adaptable approach to solving problems, an aversion to waste, a sense of community. As hard as we must fight to live in a world where no one is forced to feel their home, there is much we can learn from Syria’s refugees.
Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield.
What every asylum-seeker dreams of, prays for, longs for. To be granted asylum, to be safe, to be able to start a new life in a new home.
If asylum is granted, a brutal countdown starts. People have 28 days before payments stop and they are moved out of their homes. The UK Home Office calls it the “move on” period.
So, in a language that’s not your own, in a system that is unfamiliar and which is likely to seem hostile if you’ve already had to battle with it since arrival, without a network of friends and family around you, perhaps with small children in tow, and struggling with the traumas that led you to seek asylum in the first place, you now have to:
- Read and understand a five-page Discontinuation of Asylum Support letter
- Chase up your Biometric Residence Card — that’s compulsory identification for every new refugee living in the UK.
- Get a National Insurance number.
- Make a decision about where to live in the UK.
- Obtain proof of address and an identity card to open a bank account.
- Apply for benefits.
- Apply for social housing if it’s an option, or find a private landlord willing to take on a refugee, get hold of references, money for a deposit and the first month’s rent.
- Get access to Find a computer with wifi and a printer to apply for an integration loan.
- Travel to new accommodation with belongings.
The stories with which we are all familiar of benefit claimants repeatedly falling foul of delays and sanctions now apply to the refugee too.
Lydia Noon tells ‘Kia”s story:
On the day Kia’s 28 day ‘move-on’ period was up, an employee from private housing contractor G4S came to her shared house to get her key.
Her last Home Office payment of £10 arrived ten days before her financial support was stopped. When she packed her suitcase and walked to the nearest bus stop on 23 March, Kia had just £6 in her purse. She was still waiting for her National Insurance number and hadn’t applied for benefits.
Kia counted out £4 for a daysaver and took a bus to Birmingham’s Neighbourhood Office to ask for help.
She arrived at 9.30am when the office doors opened. The housing officer couldn’t see her right away so Kia took her suitcase and sat in the waiting room. There were three other people there, says Kia, also waiting to be allocated a place to live. Lunchtime came and went. Too scared to use her last £2, Kia didn’t eat or drink anything all day.
More than eight hours later, the housing officer finally saw her. He asked her questions about her health then told her there was no accommodation available. He scribbled down an address for a B&B and told Kia to go there.
“I’m in tears, it’s late, it’s wet and freezing cold. I don’t know where I’m going,” Kia recalls.
She got the bus as far as she could and her friend booked her a taxi for the last leg of her journey.
Too scared to use her last £2, Kia didn’t eat or drink anything all day
When she arrived at the run-down B&B, located near a motorway, Kia gave the receptionist a letter that the housing officer had handed her. She had a shower but nothing to eat.
“It was a nice room. I can’t complain,” she says.
Every morning there was cornflakes and juice.
In three weeks, Kia ate three times, when a friend came to visit and brought food.
“I’m a bit to blame because I should have acted,” Kia sighs. “But when you can’t express yourself, you can’t explain what you’re going through. I should have started chasing this Job Seekers Allowance thing during those 28 days.
“If I had known what to do, what to ask for, I wouldn’t have gone hungry.”
Still Human Still Here primarily work to address the huge problem of destitution for refused asylum seekers. But they too report that newly recognised refugees end up destitute because their section 95 asylum support is cut off before they are able to access mainstream benefits or start working.
Despite repeated efforts to solve this issue through procedural improvements, the evidence shows that the problem has got worse in recent years and that very significant numbers of refugees are ending up destitute after the 28 day move-on period expires. For example:
In 2015, the British Red Cross supported over 9,000 destitute refugees and asylum
seekers of which 1,155 had refugee status (13%). This represents a significant
increase on 2014 during which they supported 7,700 destitute refugees and asylum
seekers of which 700 were refugees (9%).
In 2015, 38% (225 people) of those housed by the No Accommodation Network
(NACCOM) were refugees who were made homeless after obtaining leave to remain.
An increase from 36% (186 people) in 2014.
Theresa May, as Home Secretary, set out quite explicitly to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal migrants. But asylum-seekers and newly recognised refugees are caught in that same hostility. They encounter it in the requirement that private landlords verify the immigration status of their tenants, and face fines if they fail to do so, thus creating not only an administrative barrier if the refugee is unable to provide all of the required documents, but a strong incentive for the landlord to refuse tenancy to those who can’t immediately provide unequivocal evidence of British nationality. They encounter it in the requirement for the same checks to be carried out before they can open a bank account or access health treatment. They encounter it in the inadequate or simply wrong advice that may be given by advisers at the Job Centre and elsewhere – advice which they are not equipped to challenge – for example:
Some centres refused to accept JSA/ESA claims until after the grace period had ended, meaning that new refugees were forced into destitution before they can even start their claims for mainstream benefits. One service in Barnsley spoke of a couple who were wrongly advised by the Job Centre that they could not attend a work-focused interview until after their Home Office support had been terminated.
The vulnerability of the asylum seeker, the many Catch-22s which make it so difficult for them to survive whilst waiting for their status to be confirmed, let alone if their claim is refused, are shocking enough. What we may be less aware of is that the longed-for refugee status does not mean that the threat of destitution, homelessness, lack of health care and so on is lifted.
As ‘Kia’ said, ‘If I’d known what to ask for, I wouldn’t have gone hungry’. And if it weren’t for the voluntary organisations working to support both asylum seekers and refugees, things would be much, much worse.
There’s another thing. In the past anyone recognised as a refugee would have five years’ refugee status or humanitarian protection, after which they could apply for permanent settlement (indefinite leave to remain), which was normally granted fairly automatically. Now new guidelines (March 2017) from the Home Office say that all who apply for settlement will be subject to a ‘safe return review’, to see if the country they left is now deemed safe for them to return to.
This means that the refugee, having overcome immense barriers to reach safety and to be granted refugee status, now faces the threat that if they cannot convince the authorities that the homeland they fled is still not a safe place for them, they will be returned there.
The awarding of refugee status should bring with it the promise of stability and security. It is a chance to build a new home, to study or work, to become a part of the community. …. These changes put an end to that hope of stability, and introduce an additional layer of bureaucracy, uncertainty, and evaluation at the hands of a dispassionate state. All of the difficult administrative hurdles to get status in the first place will be repeated. There is no question that this will have a devastating impact on the mental health of those who have sought to make a new life in the UK.
How can a refugee plan for their future, given this uncertainty? How can they begin to feel truly part of the community? How can they be part of our shared future?
These are just a few of the organisations working to support asylum seekers and refugees in the UK:
UK Refugee Welcome – People to People Solidarity is a network on Facebook that connects volunteers around the country with asylum seekers and refugees who need practical help or advice.
The Red Cross support around 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers each year who are destitute.
Refugees at Home is a charity that connects people who have a spare room with refugees who need one.
These are the words of a remarkable woman. A secretary, who through her tireless work for the organisation now known as CARA – the Council for At-risk Academics – helped to arrange for the rescue of prominent scholars who had been dismissed from German universities on racial and political grounds. The Academic Assistance Council, as it was first known, was set up by William Beveridge in 1933, and its first president was Ernest Rutherford. Joining with other organisations, the AAC organised a fundraising event under the umbrella of the Refugee Assistance Fund, at which Albert Einstein spoke powerfully about intellectual and individual freedom:
“If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom we must keep clearly before us what is at stake, and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles. Without such freedom, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Pasteur and no Lister … Most people would lead a dull life of slavery … It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.”
As persecution in Germany intensified, and it became clear that Jewish scholars, and those who opposed Nazism, were not only losing their jobs and their freedom to work, but that their lives were at risk, the AAC set up a more formal structure to continue the work, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL).
In the years between Hitler coming to power and the outbreak of war, they raised the equivalent of some £4 million in today’s terms, which they used to support individuals and their families while they found new posts in universities in the UK or in other safe countries.
In all some two thousand people were saved, and helped to build new lives. Sixteen won Nobel Prizes; eighteen were knighted; over one hundred became Fellows of The Royal Society or The British Academy. Their contribution to British scientific, intellectual and cultural life was enormous. To give just a few examples: Ernst Chain, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1945; Hans Krebs, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1953; Max Born, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1954; Max Perutz, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1962; Lise Meitner, celebrated nuclear physicist; Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian and author; Marthe Vogt, prominent neuroscientist; Geoffrey Elton (born Gottfried Ehrenberg), Tudor historian and philosopher of history; Ernst Gombrich, the notable art historian, who was able to work as a Warburg Institute research fellow in London; Karl Popper, political and social philosopher; Ludwig Guttmann, neurologist at Stoke Mandeville, ‘father’ of the Paralympic movement. It was a unique effort; there was no parallel elsewhere in Europe. At a commemorative event at the House of Lords in 2012, Mrs Eva Loeffler, Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s daughter, warmly thanked Cara for its vital role in obtaining visas for her family and for giving her father a grant to support his needs and to enable him to continue his research at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. Without Cara’s help, she said, they would all have perished in the Nazi concentration camps. Instead, her father’s dream of the Paralympics had come true.
Many eminent men headed up the organisation in its various forms (its work continued after the war – oppression and persecution continued and their efforts were as desperately needed as ever), and many eminent men were saved by its work. But it couldn’t have happened without Esther Simpson.
She became the AAC’s Assistant Secretary, recruited thanks to her work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
For the AAC it was an inspired appointment, as Beveridge would write, “of lasting and growing importance”. She had a rare talent for organization, for friendship and for persuading people to do what she asked without provoking resentment. She also had the most astounding reserves of energy, resilience and patience. She would routinely work until 10 pm when the gates outside their office were locked.
She had pots of funding to allocate, according to strict criteria, but most importantly she was the link between British (and later US) academic institutions and at-risk academics, finding ways of getting them out of Germany and providing support whilst they secured longer-term posts.
After the borders closed with the declaration of war, demonstrating what Max Perutz called ‘an iron toughness in the face of officialdom’, she helped to get Jewish refugees out of the British internment camps where they were being incarcerated (alongside Nazis) as ‘enemy aliens’.
Over 500 of those detained were academics, almost all of whom she had helped to settle in the UK. They included molecular biologist Max Perutz, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner and art historian Ernst Gombrich. She opened a file on each of them and began to prepare the documentation to petition for their release. A turning point came when the government announced that those who posed no danger and had a vital contribution to make to the nation were free to go. The Home Secretary then agreed that this would include contributions to science and learning.
Simpson ‘chivvies officials, chases references, comforts wives, sends food parcels, performs innumerable small acts of kindness. Practical humanity. The banality of goodness.’
After the war, Esther Simpson continued to work for the AAC/SPSL (Society for the Protection of Science & Learning) to secure the safety of at-risk academics from Czechoslovakia, Greece, Poland, Brazil, South Africa, Hungary, Romania, Biafra, Bangladesh, Argentina, Chile, Uganda, Zimbabwe, China …. As she said, ‘there is no end.’
And the organisation that she worked so tirelessly for is still pursuing the same goals today.
Its name changed yet again – from SPSL to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) and then in 2014 to the Council for At-Risk Academics,
reflecting the fact that Cara helps many who are at great risk but do not see themselves as ‘refugees’, and instead still hope to return to their home countries when conditions allow.
The academics with whom CARA works today come from different parts of the world – their circumstances and their needs may be different to those of the first groups to whom the organisation reached out. But the fundamentals remain the same.
Alier was first arrested in 1992, accused of supporting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a multi-ethnic resistance group based in the south. He was released, but then faced with conscription into the Sudanese state’s army. He fled to the UK. He was supported by Cara to do an MSc in Water Management. Following the 2005 Peace Agreement he returned home and worked for a UK charity as a Water and Sanitation Engineer. After South Sudan’s independence, he took over a senior position in the Directorate of Water Resources Management, before beginning a new role as the Head of Technical Affairs, South Sudan National Petroleum and Gas Commission in January 2015.
In this short video, two Cara Fellows from Syria, Reem and Saeed, explore what they had to leave behind, talk about what they are doing now and discuss their hopes of returning in the future. Click here to hear their stories
The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘our shared future’. The world we live in would be very different without the contribution of those who were rescued from the horror of Nazi Europe.
We cannot yet know what the contributions of those who Cara is helping today may be. One day, who knows, the names of some of those being supported now may be as well-known as those above. All we can know for sure is that without this work, gifted researchers and scholars who have the potential to make a difference in their field – whether it is medicine or engineering or plant science or law – will die.
Cara reports that the battle for Mosul has just this year cost the lives of a number of academics: Professor Lokman Safar, Professor Abdul Aziz Mahmoo, Professor Mohammed Mahmoud Sheikh-Isa, and Dr Ali Salah.
Executive Director Stephen Wordsworth says that
There has, sadly, been no let-up in the pace of work recently, as university academics around the world continue to be targets for repressive governments and extremist groups. Just now, most of those seeking the help of our Fellowship Programme to get to safety come from from Syria and Turkey, but there are many other places too where intellectuals are seen as ‘opposition’ and find themselves, sometimes quite literally, in the firing line.
As well as Fellowships, we are also developing our Syria Programme, to provide support in the region to Syrian academics affected by the crisis. This draws on our experience from earlier crises in Iraq and Zimbabwe, and is aimed at helping those who have been forced into exile to stay engaged academically, and to develop their skills.
Like all of the agencies working with the refugee crisis, Cara needs support. Find out how, here.
As an alumna, current student and retired member of staff at the University of Sheffield, I’m immensely proud that my University is at the forefront of initiatives to support both at-risk academics (working with Cara and other agencies) and asylum-seeker students.
Amongst many notable alumni, we remember in particular during Refugee Week, one scholar who came to Sheffield thanks to the efforts of the AAC.
Hans Krebs is just one person who came as a refugee from Nazi Germany. He came to Sheffield and established a group that worked on aspects of biochemistry that have been important to the world. His discovery of the Krebs cycle saw him awarded a Nobel Prize, but he has also left a legacy in Sheffield which continues to inspire future generations. We celebrated this legacy in 2015, 80 years after his arrival here.
Like Esther Simpson, we have to belong to the world. We are international, we always will be. Our community is made up of people from over 120 nations. Academics from all over the world teach students from all over the world, collaborating with institutions across the world. Only when we belong to the world can we truly ‘discover, understand, explore’, push the boundaries of knowledge, dig deeper, shed brighter light, make a difference by fighting back against disease, creating innovation, challenging received wisdom.