Posts Tagged Refugees
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.
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.
Serendipitously, the start of Refugee Week 2015, with its theme of the contribution that refugees make to the communities in which they make their new homes, coincides with the 92nd birthday of Judith Kerr.
Her books were not part of my own childhood – I was too old by 1968 to enjoy The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and certainly by 1970 when the first Mog book appeared. But I read those books – again and again and again – to my own children. And unlike some books which I read to them again and again and again, which irritated me more with every rendition, it was always a joy to read anything by Kerr.
If pressed, I could probably still recite part of The Tiger, and certainly odd phrases from the Mog series (the cat who ‘forgot she had a catflap’, and who got an egg AND a medal after unwittingly foiling a burglary) have passed into our family language.
Nothing in the world depicted in these delightful stories suggests the circumstances in which Judith Kerr arrived in the UK. They’re not cloyingly cosy – after all, the final Mog book says a final goodbye to that forgetful cat. But one wouldn’t guess that her family had to leave their Berlin home suddenly in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, because her father had been openly critical of the party. He left first, having been tipped off that he was at risk, and her mother and the two children followed not long afterwards, travelling initially to Sweden and then to France, before applying for and being granted British citizenship. They could not have known in 1933 the full extent of the danger that they, as Jews, would have faced had they stayed, and they left France before that country ceased to be a safe haven, but as the war went on, Judith’s parents carried suicide pills with them, in case of a Nazi invasion.
Michael Rosen has suggested that the Tiger, who comes to tea and eats everything in the house, drinks all Daddy’s beer and all the water in the taps, was suggested at some subconscious level by the childhood awareness of an unexplained threat, that your home could be invaded, everything you have could be taken, without warning. That may be, and it’s certainly part of the unsettling charm of the book that we never forget that the Tiger is a tiger, that if not placated with all the food and drink he demands he could be dangerous. But at the same time, the willingness of the family to allow this unexpected visitor to empty their pantry conveys generosity and hospitality, along with imperturbability, rather than fear. It could be that this reflects the way in which parents maintain a calm unflappable air in order not to frighten children too young to understand real danger. But of course the Tiger leaves, of his own accord, and never comes back.
Kerr did write directly about her past, in three autobiographical novels collectively titled ‘Out of the Hitler Time’. She’s very conscious of her own good fortune, not only in that, unlike so many other families, they lost no one, but that they found a safe home and a welcome, and the chance to build new lives.
‘People here were so good to us in the war. It must have been awful for my parents, but when you consider what happened to the others who stayed behind, nothing bad happened to us. We didn’t lose anyone. All our family got out: my grandparents, uncles, aunts, they all got out. Nobody died. We had a terrible time with money, but so did lots of people, and people were very good to us wherever we went.’ (http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/children/illustrators/interviews/104)
Happy birthday Judith Kerr, and thank you.
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.