Thursday, 30 July 2015

The duty, and joy, of welcome

"Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution"
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Article 14

It is conflicting emotions and experiences this week that have compelled me to sit down and try to draw together into a blog post the numerous strands of thought which are currently floating around my brain. It risks being both much too long and somewhat confused, but hopefully a few vaguely coherent thoughts will be discernible somewhere within it.

I have the pleasure of spending most of this week in St Chad’s Sanctuary, a place regular readers of this blog will know is very dear to my heart. It is summer school this week, when our students are invited to spend the week participating in a variety of activities and it is certainly no sacrifice to dedicate a week of my school holidays to spending time with them.

There have been any number of highlights, among which:

·      The week began on a high as I invited 12 students from 7 different countries with varying levels of English to explore life and identity in a poetry writing workshop (there may be another post to follow with some of the results of that one). As well as serving as a testament to their engagement and enthusiasm for learning, some profound ideas were shared, even with very few words.

·      Playing football with a group of young men certainly both fitter and more talented than me, but who were determined to include me and who, along with their energy and enthusiasm, exhibited a sportsmanship and concern for one another from which the premiership players have much to learn.

·      Tuesday was our annual “school trip” which this year took us to a National Trust property outside Birmingham. There were exclamations of pleasure over fresh air and views of the countryside. There were discussions in the vegetable gardens about memories of farms back home. There was sharing and conversation and games and music and laughter.

·      Taking a group to the library where, with lots of support, two ladies with virtually no English were able to become members of the library and were clearly delighted to take away dual language picture books to improve their English.

·      There is more still to come and I am really looking forward to this afternoon's end of year barbecue and celebration event and to seeing my students collect their certificates, well-deserved after a year of hard work.

Meanwhile every day the media swirls with stories of the desperation of those still trying to seek sanctuary on our shores. Except often, it is not that desperation which dominates the headlines: it is the inconvenience of traffic jams, the determination to build a better barrier, the complaints that the French aren’t doing enough, the myths and contortions that are allowed to shape our understanding of a complicated situation. Myths that mean it is acceptable to "blame the migrants" for social strains which clearly would be more appropriately blamed on the ever-increasing concentration of our nation's wealth in the hands of the privileged few.

I know we have, as a nation, a long history of blaming the French, always an easy target as the butt of our jokes, but while their failure to stop migrants reaching the UK is oft cited, it is rarely mentioned that the French received more than twice as many asylum claims as us last year and rank above us (but below Germany, Sweden and Italy) among European countries welcoming the highest numbers of refugees. All of these pale into insignificance compared to the countries which welcome the most displaced people, all of which are in the Middle-East, Asia and Africa (with Turkey taking the top spot in 2014). It is by no means true that “they all want to come here.”

Actually, Britain hosts less that 1% of the world’s refugees. At a time when increased conflict and the ravages of climate change are creating the greatest refugee crisis since the second world war, that is a shocking, and to my mind shameful statistic.

Among yesterday's headlines was the news that one young man died, the ninth so far this year to die on that stage of the journey: to be added to the hundreds who have died in the Mediterranean, and the deaths in the Sahara of which no-one even keeps count. The news coverage spoke dispassionately of the death of a “migrant” or “Sudanese male”. ... but he was, first and foremost, surely, a human being. A son and probable a brother, perhaps a husband and maybe a father. Unnamed, unknown, forgotten. I wonder how different the headlines would have been if he had been a young white British man instead. 

David Cameron’s response was to express concern ... which might have been encouraging: except his concern was neither for this young man who lost his life, nor his family or friends who may never know of his fate, nor even the others so desperate they continue to take this same risk. No his concern was for British holiday makers facing delays to their journeys ... where, oh where did we go so far wrong?

And then this morning I was further enraged by another news headline, in which Cameron declares: “Britain is no safe haven” And somehow that is supposed to be a good thing? Taking a hard line as we turn away those fleeing desperate situations we neither want to nor are able to imagine is something of which we should be proud?

I have met some of these people.

Many of the students I teach at St Chad’s entered Britain this way. They risked their lives crossing conflict zones, the Sahara, the Mediterranean. They left behind families, friends and familiarity. They came because they had no other choice. They came because they had experienced poverty and hunger, violence and torture, corruption, destruction and fear. They came because they hoped to find a place of safety. They came, too, to give their gifts and talents and time and love to a place they believed would make them welcome. They came to participate and contribute as much as to receive and to be appreciative of things which, by an accident of birth, we completely take for granted.  They came with hopes and dreams and aspirations. They came as human beings. 

My life is infinitely richer for knowing them.

That young man who died, had he not done, might have been one of those who I encouraged, in faltering English, to express something of his deepest desires in a poem. He might have been one of those who asked others to slow down so that “Teacher” could have a kick of the ball. One of those who, looking at a vegetable garden, shared stories about farming back home. One of those whose face would have been wreathed in smiles receiving a very simple certificate recognising an effort made.

For many of those who make it, Britain does, eventually, recognise its responsibility under international law. 87% of Eritreans who claim asylum here have their claim accepted. That is little consolation for those who died on the way. There is nothing “bogus” or “illegal” about these people. They have a genuine and legitimate fear which drives them away from a desperate situation and brings them through unimaginable trials to our shores. It is our responsibility and should be our joy to offer them new opportunities in a place of safety.

Amidst all the talk of bigger fences and better policing, there is a different solution to the delays for the holiday makers that David Cameron is so concerned about. There are alternative ways to respond to this crisis that are rarely suggested in the media or political discourse. 

We could, if we chose to, live up to our claim to be a “civilised nation”, live up to our desire to preach freedom and democracy to the world. As a nation we are richer than we have ever been. We do not have to spend our money on fences and security. If we provided safe routes for those fleeing war, famine, persecution, corruption, violence, poverty, and climate change, then perhaps they would not need to risk life and limb (and traffic delays) seeking the safety, we, and others promised we would afford them in the Refugee Convention of 1951. 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

A wind of love

A spirit’s breath
A wind of love
That chases leaves
Under shifting canopies
Of dappled light
Through wise old trees

A wind which
And oft times

The gentle breeze
And forceful gusts
Of shifting dust

The debris
Of lives lived
Made tangible in

A love that falls
Like summer rain
And pierced with pain
Lives on
In gentle joy

And elusive wisps
Of dark and light
On a spirit’s breath
Of a wind of love

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

We drink from many wells

In September, The Church at Carrs Lane will host the URC's national "multicultural day" as part of which churches are invited to contribute an artwork to an exhibition, relating to the theme "we drink from many wells". In a rash moment I offered to lead the congregation in producing a communal work of art which we did during the service one Sunday morning. I was (and hope others were too) quite pleased with the result; but recognise that it requires some kind of explanation to make sense to anyone who wasn't involved in the process.

I know this kind of activity will have suited some of those involved, while for others it probably sent their hearts into their boots; but I hope that something of the symbolism of the process as much as the finished piece, proved a meaningful way to explore both the challenges and the beauty of creating community. 

Initially, everyone was invited to create their own image of a well on a square of paper. Each one was unique and beautiful. Stage two then required each person to cut up the image they had just created, symbolic of the ways in which, in order to come together with others, we sometimes need to break or destroy something which to us already seems very beautiful; to give up parts of ourselves that we have constructed with time, effort and care.

Keeping hold of one of our own pieces, we each reconstructed an image made up of parts of each others’ original creations. We saw only part of each image, just as we can only ever glimpse parts of the lives of those we encounter.  Making the selection allowed us to look at pieces similar to our own, as well as very different, at pieces we instantly understood as well as pieces we didn’t really get, at pieces the beauty or talent of which was instantly recognisable, as well as those in which we perhaps had to look harder to see the value.

Finally these newly reconsituted images were put together: the final creation is the sum of all our individual parts, but put together in new and different ways that probably none of us (not even me who was orchestrating the whole thing) could have imagined before we began.  

The following poem came later in response to this shared creative process and something of what it tries to say about the process of creating community ... Being here, living this life we are aspiring towards, I have experienced both fractured walls and healing waters.

And here I am
In this, the waiting place
Unfathomable depths
And the echoing of silence
A space, my space, of carefully constructing
A beauty all my own

By this the well
The dwelling place
Of fractured walls and healing waters

Watching, waiting, holding
Until a single drop
That shatters in an instant
That silent stillness

And yet
Is it not here
Through these
The cracked and broken shards
A spark may shine
To release the reflected rainbows
Of the beauty of our broken whole

In this the well
The dwelling place
Of fractured walls and healing waters

And when we dare
To turn our glance from depths to heights
This place of isolation
Transformed, transfigured
By an encounter with the other

And here
To find our place
A hidden beauty

An outstretched hand
That does not seek to understand
But offers trust

A space, our space of meeting with the other
That we might glimpse our God

At this the well
The dwelling place
Of fractured walls and healing waters

Friday, 3 July 2015

In their own words (part 3)

The third, and final (for now) installment of my students' stories.

I hope others find them as inspiring as I do. I hope they stand as a testament that "deterrent" is not the answer to the ever-increasing flow of asylum seekers arriving on Europe's shores. There are already plenty of things which in normal circumstances would act as a fairly convincing deterrent. If separation from family which may well be permanent, a very real fear of dying en route and the arrival in a confusing, alien environment are no deterrent; it is because in the midst of everything there is a hope of life they just can't find back home.

Most of my students love and mourn for their home countries. They speak of corruption, opporession, poverty and war; but also of hidden riches of beauty, culture and community. They only leave because they feel they have no choice. Surely we too have no choice but to make them welcome.

I come from Sudan. I have 2 sisters and 3 brothers. I lived in Darfur. My family are farmers. After my village was destroyed by my government they live in camps. I have been in the UK about six months. I live now in Birmingham.
My country is Sudan. It has got independence in 1956. The leader now is Omar al-Bashir and the capital city is Khartoum. The population is about 31 million. Almost all the people are farmers and they grow different crops. They have more than 560 languages and cultures but the basic language is Arabic. The people are making between Arab people and African people. And the basic religion in Sudan is Islam and the others are little. The people are so lovely in my country but unfortunately now there is war in there and my government killing the people in Darfur, and the Nuba mountains and the East of Sudan and it destroyed all the villages. I am very sorry and sad for that but I am very happy to talking about my country.
I am talking about my journey to UK. I started from Khartoum to Libya by desert and by car. I was travelling for 12 days on the way, sometimes with no food and no water. The weather is very, very, very hot. When we arrived in Libya we found the people is very bad people. They were kicking us. We stayed there about 15 days and we came Italy in the Mediterranean by boat. It was very frightening. I thank of God a lot because he saved us to reach Italy. Unfortunately when we arrived in Paris we stayed on road and slept under the bridge. At last we reached the UK and we found everything is good. There is freedom and the people is very lovely and everything is good and I thank all people in England.

I was born in Congo. Congo is the capital of DRC. My first journey was very difficult from my home town to England. I left Congo about one year ago. Now I live with my whole family and I love it very much. I have five siblings. I am the second of my family. I am not married yet. I live in Birmingham and I am so happy about this.
I come from Congo. At the moment the president of Congo is called Joseph Kabila. He is in power since 2001. The 30th June we celebrate the entry of AFDN its called our national hymn. We’ve got two seasons. A rainy season and a hot season. Its a big country and most people are Christian. My country is great  but the government is not good and many people suffer. There is always a disorder during the elections. I love my country very much because we’ve many cultures and traditions. We also have many different food and different animals.
When I got to England I was confused because i saw many different things, like the buildings, different races, different food, etc. I was so sad because I didn’t speak any English because of this I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t know anything about England and the weather is very much colder in winter. I didn’t have any friends and the home office complicated my case. But now I am so happy because I speak a little English, I’ve some friends. I feel safe. I’m so proud of England because there is free college and school. People have freedom and have some support.