A new art exhibition ‘Back Where You Came From’ examines how ancient stories about migration preserved in the biblical book of Genesis are helpful in considering the current migration crisis. The project seeks to promote open dialogue about migration through reading ancient sacred texts about migration in groups that include people from different faiths and cultures. Sanctuary seekers in the city have reflected on their movement, transience, and migration from their homes by responding to stories about the figures of Abraham, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob from the book of Genesis.’
‘Back Where You Come From’ will run from 15 to 26 June at The Gallery @ 35 Chapel Walk, in the centre of Sheffield, from 10am to 6pm. Download the exhibition brochure.
Women become refugees for most of the same reasons that men do. They experience most of the same terrors, dangers and indignities along the way. But there are also particular threats that may drive them to leave everything behind and seek safety somewhere else. The fear or immediate threat of forced marriage or genital mutilation, for them or their daughters. The use of rape as a weapon of war, or as a routine way of punishing women for resistance, or for their sexual orientation.
And leaving home, the perils of the journey, the insecurities of their place of arrival expose them even more to the threat of sexual violence, as destitution may lead to their exploitation by traffickers and pimps. In detention, women who have been raped or sexually abused, or whose culture imposes a duty of modesty, may find themselves being searched, or watched whilst dressing or washing, by male guards. Some have been sexually assaulted by their guards.
Lengthy indefinite detention is inherently unjust. It is inherently damaging to refugees who are already traumatised by their experiences. There must be some alternative to treating people who have sought sanctuary here more harshly than those who have been convicted of a crime. There must be some recognition that the women in Yarls Wood, if they must be detained, need to be safe from harm, treated with kindness, their privacy respected. Pregnant women, and anyone who is sick, physically or mentally, should not be there.
Refugee women can and do contribute. A A Gill, who wrote a series of articles on refugees in DRC, Jordan and Lampedusa published in The Sunday Times Magazine, said: ‘In Congo I realised a truth I’ve known all my life. Whilst women are often victims, they are also often the catalyst for making things better.’ The Refugee Council has for the last few years celebrated these contributions, and here are a few of the recipients of their awards.
This year’s Special Jury Award went to Asma Mohamed Ali. Asma was born on the Brava Coast in Somalia and came to the UK in 1992 having spent much of her childhood in Kenyan refugee camps. Now working in Barnet at the Somali Bravanese Welfare Association, Asma has built a thriving centre and education programme that supports 200 students and their families.
In 2014 Lilian Seenoi, a refugee from Kenya, was recognised as Woman of the Year for her work setting up North-West Migrants Forum – the only migrant forum in Derry/Londonderry, from her kitchen table. Lilian sought asylum in the UK after her work rescuing young girls from early marriage put her life in danger. Her work in Northern Ireland now brings together diverse migrant groups and local communities who have suffered years of tension. Lilian quoted from the Migrant Manifesto: ‘I have witnessed how fear creates boundaries, how boundaries create hate and how hate only serves the oppressors. I do understand that migrants and non-migrants are interconnected. When the rights of migrants are denied, the rights of citizens are at risk. Dignity has no nationality.’
Constance Nzeneu, who received an award in 2014, fled to the UK in 2005 from the threat of a forced marriage in Cameroon where she had trained as a lawyer. After she applied for protection, she was dispersed to Cardiff whilst her asylum claim was being processed. Like thousands of asylum seekers, Constance had no choice over where she would live and had no right to work, but she did not stand still, with the help of a training she became involved in advocacy and community work, This is how she describes those early days:
“I was refused asylum and I realized that there were so many people out there with similar or worse experiences than mine. There was no project led by women seeking sanctuary and I think you can’t really understand this situation – being destitute, being homeless and thinking what am I going to eat tonight, and I don’t want to be a burden to anyone, and how long am I going to be allowed to stay, and I’m about to be deported, what should I do…unless you’ve been through it yourself.”
She now leads Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Wales (WSSAG), which she set up to support other women to cope with exile, and to raise awareness within Wales about why women seek sanctuary. The group is now 40 strong.
Community work comes naturally to Nazek Ramadan, who received an award in 2012. In the 1980s she opened her home in Beirut to refugees, and when she and her family had to flee Lebanon for the UK in 1986, she began volunteering soon after she arrived in London, initially at an Arabic speaking supplementary school. Her first challenge was to learn English, which she did by watching children’s TV (advice she still gives to others), going to classes and joining in any activity she could. The early years in London were not easy and Nazek experienced racial abuse. She discovered that learning English and getting a job were not enough to be accepted. When a fellow migrant said to her ‘how can they hate us so much, when they don’t even know us’ she replied by saying, ‘you’ve answered your own question, they don’t know us’. She realised that ‘everyone was talking about migrants except migrants’ and so set out to remedy this. In 2007 she launched the New Londoners newspaper which, modelled on London’s freesheets, succeeded in getting migrant and asylum issues in front of London commuters and won two awards from the Mayor of London. And in 2010 she founded Migrant Voice, an organisation dedicated to addressing the lack of representation of migrants in the mainstream media.
These women left their homes and loved ones, fleeing war and persecution, and managed not only to build a new life for themselves and their families, but also to support and inspire people and communities across the UK.
Decades before the refugees from Vietnam were given the name of ‘boat people’, and before the more recent tragedies in the Med, a group of refugees were desperately hoping for a ship to take them away from Europe, to the US, the UK, anywhere. They went through official channels, or at least they tried, applying for visas and waiting, waiting. Russian author Victor Serge described the temporary community gathered in Marseille:
Here is a beggar’s alley gathering the remnants of revolutions, democracies and crushed intellects… In our ranks are enough doctors, psychologists, engineers, educationalists, poets, painters, writers, musicians, economists and public men to vitalize a whole great country.
Many of them had already fled across Europe. Some made it to safety in another continent. Others didn’t – they left it just a little too late.
Many of those who did make it owed their survival to the work of American journalist Varian Fry, and Harry Bingham IV, the US Vice-Consul in Marseille, who provided forged visas particularly to artists at risk in Occupied France, Mary Jayne Gold , a Chicago heiress who helped to fund the operation, Albert O Hirschmann and Miriam Davenport, along with Robert Dexter , the founder of the Unitarian Service Committee.
Thanks to their collective effort, Marc Chagall (originally from what is now Belarus) and his wife Bella sailed in May 1941. Their daughter Ida and her husband left on another ship, the SS Navemar, chartered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The refugees who managed to get to Seville found themselves taking bunks in its filthy cargo holds (unless they had the funds to pay the captain for more salubrious quarters) – many passengers contracted typhus en route, and six died.
Even on the Navemar the conditions and the dangers faced by these ‘boat people’ were very different to those encountered by today’s boat people. But some similarities remain – a number of such ships were turned away, and had to return to Europe, a terrible prospect for their passengers. In February 1942, the Turkish police cut the anchor of the SS Struma, carrying 767 Jews, and towed it into the Black Sea, where it was set adrift without a working engine. People ashore could make out a large banner that read, “Save us.” A torpedo from a Russian submarine sank the vessel six miles from shore early the next morning. There was one survivor.
Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins wrote this haunting passage about the Struma in their book Death on the Black Sea:
Standing on the polished deck of a British Royal Navy cruiser in January 1942, Olivia Manning experienced a moment of utter confusion. She and her husband, a British journalist, had joined a party of diplomats and officials for an evening’s pleasure cruise along the Bosporus and around Istanbul harbor. The city lights sparkled in the chill air, and the ship’s forward searchlight played across the night water. The guests danced and sipped martinis and gin and tonics. The festivities stopped abruptly when the searchlight paused on what appeared to be a derelict ship, illuminating rows of faces, white and unsmiling, as they stared back at the partygoers. “Who are they?” asked one of the shocked guests. “What are they doing there?” asked another. Someone suggested it was a prison ship. “The light shifted and the party forgot its grim audience hidden in the dark,” Manning, a novelist who had lived in Romania briefly before the war, later wrote in a newspaper article. “The ship was the Struma.” The images of gaunt, ghostlike men and women from the Nazi death camps were not yet stamped on the world’s consciousness: The hair-raising atrocities were proceeding largely behind closed gates at the end of 1941. In the harbor of one of the world’s largest cities, though, a place teeming with diplomats and journalists, the panorama of Jewish suffering was visible to anyone who cared or dared to look.
As grim and hazardous as the voyages were, for those who didn’t get visas (real or forged) the alternative was clear. Walter Benjamin committed suicide at Portbou in Catalonia, having heard that his application had been refused and that he would be deported back to France. He was not the only one to make such a choice, though the bitter irony is that had he not done so, or had he, like his friend Arthur Koestler, survived the attempt, the following day he could have got the papers he needed.
Varian Fry found himself in a bizarre position. He wrote home:
‘Among the people who have come into my office, or with whom I am in constant correspondence, are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters, sculptors of Europe . . . but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries. What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever.’
This young American of no importance whatever helped Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich and son Golo, Claude Levi-Strauss, Alma Mahler, Arthur Koestler, amongst many others who were and remain significant cultural figures – and many whose names are unfamiliar, but who nevertheless got their chance to contribute in less public ways.
For Fry this contribution was far from enough. He said “In all we saved some two thousand human beings. We ought to have saved many times that number. But we did what we could.” And he continued to make impassioned pleas to the US government, to anyone who might listen, to do more, to do everything they could in the face of ‘systematic extermination’. In an article in the New Republic, entitled ‘The Massacre of the Jews in Europe’ in December 1942 he said:
There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order… we can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape, to those few fortunate enough to escape from the Aryan paradise. There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned to death many stalwart democrats… This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore.
Refugee Week 2015 – Refugee Women
Originally posted on Women for Refugee Women:
Hundreds of protesters came to Yarl’s Wood on 6 June to demand justice and dignity for women who cross borders, and the closure of Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Before the protest, throughout it and afterwards Women for Refugee Women has been in touch with women who are locked up in the detention centre, and we talked to them about how they felt. We have changed the names of all current detainees in this blog.
‘We were waiting and waiting and hoping that we would hear you from the morning. Then when you walked around the back of Yarl’s Wood and we saw how many people cared we were crying and waving out the window and shouting so you could hear. It helps us to know how many people care because it often feels like we are forgotten in here. It gave us hope and raised our spirits.’ Sonia, 34, asylum seeker…
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The first time I was aware of this phrase was in the late 1970s. The boat people then were fleeing from Vietnam, in the bitter aftermath of that long war. Others fled from Cambodia and Laos as repressive governments took over in those countries, and those who couldn’t afford to buy a safer passage by bribing government officials to give them the necessary papers took to the boats, as so many others have done in the decades since.
The mass influx of refugees caused problems then to the countries on whose shores they landed. But there was a concerted, international effort, to spread the load, to share the responsibility. Various memorials in western countries pay tribute not only to the boat people who didn’t survive that perilous voyage, but to the nations who took them in, supported them in making a new life. Some of this was down to guilt – in the US in particular, who had lost a war and left those they had fought for and with to the mercy of the victors. Even so, this benign response didn’t last. Soon enough, the argument was made that many of those seeking refuge were not asylum seekers but people seeking a better life (sound familiar?), and therefore found themselves in detention centres whilst their claims were examined. If they were unsuccessful they faced deportation. In more recent years, people continue to risk their lives on the sea. Rohingya people fleeing persecution in Myanmar (Burma), refugees from conflict in Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. So many lives have been lost – the vessels barely seaworthy and overloaded with desperate humanity, and apparently all too often a world prepared to look on and judge that these people are not worth the cost of rescue. Just the other week, David Cameron claimed that the ‘vast majority’ of those who set sail across the Med are not asylum seekers but ‘ people seeking a better life’. He makes it sound a bit like someone who emigrates to Australia for the climate or a better paid job, or who moves out of the big city for a more peaceful life in the countryside. Actually, the better life they seek is a life free from fear of bombs, guns, starvation. As Somali British poet Warsan Shire says, “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Some commentators have shown a quite remarkable ability to scan the faces in the boats and judge where all of these people are from and therefore the validity of their claim. Abdallah’s story suggests why this is nonsensical – he is originally from Darfur, but fled after his village was destroyed, his father killed and his sisters raped, on to South Sudan straight into another civil war, a punishing journey across the Sahara which killed his cousin and brother, and then to Libya. And his third civil war. He saw the risk of the Mediterranean voyage as no greater than the risk of staying – and going home as not even a possibility.
The other thing that is ignored by those who want to categorise these boat people as ‘economic migrants’ is that whilst they may indeed have left their homes to take up jobs elsewhere – and then somewhere along the line their employers take their passports, and essentially treat them as slave labour. If they protest, they risk being reported to the police. And if they leave entirely, they risk being arrested as an illegal migrant. So they can’t go home, even if home is not itself a dangerous and hostile place, because they have no papers. The traffickers will take them.
People talk as if these are people who have choices. As if they can plan a journey to the nearest country where they won’t actually starve or be killed. It’s really not like that. They say we need to focus on stopping the traffickers – sure, but as well as rescuing the people they traffic, not instead. It’s been suggested that if we stop rescuing them they will stop coming. No, if we stop rescuing them they will keep on coming and they will keep on drowning.
You only have to look around you to see that refugees have contributed, historically. Your knickers may well come from Marks & Spencers. Your pantry may well stock the odd pack of Tilda rice or Patak’s curry paste. Your CD collection may well include something by MIA or Arnold Schoenberg, Wyclif Jean or Bela Bartok. Your bookshelves may well include works by Thomas Mann or Nabokov, your children’s bookshelves those of Judith Kerr or Jan Pienkowski. And that’s before you consider the contributions of the scientists, the philosophers, the painters, the film directors, the sportsmen and women who, at some point in their lives, had to leave their homes to find safety somewhere else.
Of course most refugees won’t turn out to be another Einstein, Marx or Freud. And those who arrive with nothing but the clothes they stand up in, and who live in near destitution, and in fear of deportation back to the peril that they risked everything to escape, will struggle to do much more than survive. But if they are given the chance to be who they can be, free of the threat of starvation, violence and persecution, if they are given the chance to use the skills and qualifications they already have, or to acquire skills that can be used to earn a living and pay taxes, who knows?
If we had not welcomed the children from the Kindertransport in 1939, we would never have known the contribution of impresario Bill Graham, entrepreneur Steve Shirley, film director Karel Reisz, Nobel Laureates Walter Kohn, Arno Penzias and Jack Steinberger.
If CARA had not enabled Jewish academics to take up posts in UK Universities in the 1930s, when they were unable to work in their home countries, we might never have known the contributions of Ernst Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner, Karl Popper, Max Born or Hans Krebs. Those individuals might well have been swallowed up in the barbarity. Anne Frank and Helene Berr left only their extraordinary diaries to suggest what might have been. Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann and Hans Krasa left only tantalising fragments of the musical oeuvre that they could have achieved. Walter Benjamin, Marc Bloch, Irene Nemirovsky, Max Jacob, Dietrich Bonhoeffer- all left a substantial legacy, but could have gone on, could have continued to influence and inspire.
If you really look at the photos above, what do you see? I see weariness and bewilderment, but also a fragile hope, the beginnings of belief in a future that isn’t all about fear and a desperate struggle to survive. I see people like us who had everything they’d relied upon taken away from them, and who have no choice but to trust to the kindness of strangers. We’ll never know the potential of the lives that are lost in the warzones and killing fields of the world, unless we help people in desperate straits to get out, and make a new life in safety.
They won’t all change the world – but they could change us. Our communities, fearful as they are, can gain from hearing the voices of people who have endured more than most of us could possibly imagine, and understanding that it’s all rather more complicated, and at the same time rather less threatening, than the rhetoric of the ‘send them all back – Britain is full’ brigade suggests.They can give us the chance to see things differently, to broaden our horizons as we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our homes.
I started this blog in 2012, and when Refugee Week came around that year, I decided to try to publish something every day, either my own writing or a reblog of something interesting I’d found online, about refugees. I’ve done that each year since. It’s a self-imposed challenge that I get anxious about in advance – will I be able to find the time to write, will I find things to write about, will anyone be interested? But once I get started, each year the stories have found me, stories of tragedy and of hope from around the world.
So, this year, I kicked off with an appreciation of Judith Kerr, just because it’s her birthday, and because this year’s theme is #RefugeesContribute. There are other posts brewing. But if you read this and think of a story I should be telling, let me know.
A couple of brief notes, ahead of the next substantial piece:
Michael Grade in the current Radio Times talks about his upcoming Radio 4 programme, where he interviews Kolbassia Haoussou, a refugee from Chad, and now spokesperson for Freedom from Torture. He speaks of his paternal grandparents who left the Ukraine in 1910 and undertook a remarkable, dangerous journey to England, where they built new lives, and where their children, and grandchildren achieved great success . Grade says ‘When I see pictures of boatloads of migrants heading to Europe from North Africa, I think how desperate they must be to risk everything, putting their lives in the hands of the traffickers and their deathtrap boats. I think about how they must be driven to the only option that remotely offers trhe prospect of release from the wars and the militancy and the savagery that goes on in some of these countries. …. So let’s welcome the risk-takers, wherever they may come from. It’s what a bold society does. We have much more to gain than lose’. (Michael Grade, ‘Taking a Chance’, Radio Times 13-19 June 2015).
And yesterday a group of writers, artists and musicians set off on a new pilgrimage, The Refugee Tales will be a unique walk, on paths taken by travellers over the centuries along the North Downs Way from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury, while reflecting on the long and dangerous journeys that many refugees make fleeing war and persecution, seeking a safe place to live. The organisation behind this is the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group
I’ll keep writing. If you like it, share, follow, like, retweet, reblog…