Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Never Forget - Learning the lessons of history

Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi Death Camps. It is a chance to pause and reflect and remember: to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the holocaust and by subsequent and ongoing genocides.

It is a time to look back, to create a safe space to grieve for lives damaged and lost: but it is also a time to look forward:to a time when we can truly say "never again". The value of our history is to be found in the lessons we can learn for our future.

Birmingham commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with an event at the Town Hall on Sunday 22nd February. Past and present suffering were powerfully evoked amidst a reminder that it is all of us, and each of us, who hold the responsibility to ensure that "never again" becomes a reality.

One speaker, who had been a child refugee welcomed to Britain during the Second World War spoke of visiting the Calais Jungle, connecting it to his own experience. This matters to me, he said, because I too was a refugee. He told the story of how his mother, who should have been able to join him in the UK in 1940, was prevented from doing so by bureaucratic delay … until it was too late: another life lost. He mourned for how little seems to have changed, how little has been learned. Bureaucratic delays still keep people away from our shores. I wonder if anyone is counting how many recent deaths have their names in piles of paper on a home office desk.

I was at the event accompanying one of my Sudanese students who dared to stand up in front of a crowded banqueting hall to tell his own, more recent, experience of surviving genocide and escaping Darfur. It was a story of destruction and pain and separation and suffering. I was overwhelmed by his courage to share so articulately the story of things which no-one should ever have to experience. It was a story which was hard to speak but which he realised needed to be heard. It was a story that included the words "It is not just me. Everyone from Sudan, they have terrible stories." He wants the world to know, because he wants the world to help. I wish I knew how I could. I am honoured to count him among my friends.

There is much to weep over: in our history, and in our present. But running throughout the event there was also a thread of hope: the indomitable human spirit which, while clearly capable of great cruelty is also capable of great acts of humanity, loyalty and love. It was, as an Auschwitz Survivor who shared her experiences at the event said: "Love and life itself which allowed me to go.”

We all play a part in creating the future: we must decide what we want that future to look like. Genocide never “just happens”: the possibility of it is spawned from a language of exclusion and hatred and fear; it creeps up, fed by policies and practices designed to sow division and distrust; fed by our reluctance to rock the boat and the complacency of our comfortable life.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems of our world: but to do nothing is not a solution. To stand by and watch the suffering of others, or to turn the other way so we don't have to watch is not a solution. We have to begin somewhere, but most of all we have to begin. Each of us, all of us. In our own small ways, we can choose gestures of trust instead of fear, of welcome instead of exclusion, of love instead of hate. We can be symbols of that "love and life itself" which allows hope to go on.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Twelve and a half

Today is our 12½ year wedding anniversary, and having learned that it is Dutch tradition to celebrate such a milestone, we decided to do exactly that: a good excuse for a party to brighten up a dull January day and to bring together some of those who have been with us on the journey...

And what a journey! It hasn't always been perfect or easy; but on the whole, there is very little about the last twelve and a half years I would change.

It's been an amazing adventure and we've had a whole lot of fun along the way! I am very grateful for all the places we've discovered, people we have come to call friends, and experiences that have shaped who we have become. Above all, I am grateful to be able to share my life with someone whose outlook on the world fits so seamlessly with mine; who I know I can trust implicitly; and with whom so much more has been possible than I probably would ever have lived without him.*

It seems that, whenever we celebrate a birthday, anniversary or the like, talk turns to whether it feels as long as it has been ... in reality, though, I wonder how we can ever imagine we can describe what the passage of time feels like, or how we think we might get the measure of it. Because in reality, it slips through our fingers like shifting sands, but also clings to us like those grains between your toes that never seem to quite wash away. So these last 12½ years? Well, it both feels like no time at all, and an entire lifetime. I have plenty of memories of a wedding that doesn't feel so very long ago, but enough memories in the meantime to think those 12½ have been filled to the brim. I can see, in myself, both something that still exists of the 23-year-old me and plenty that has changed, grown and deepened in the meantime.

Perhaps what the last years feel like matters less than knowing that the journey continues. There is so much more of life still to be lived! Here's to the next twelve and a half, and beyond.

*Soppy, romantic stuff over. Normal service will be resumed in the next post!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017


Among the lessons I learned in December was to try to cultivate an attitude of allowing criticism (and vile abuse) to wash over me, and to be encouraged by affirmation received from friends and strangers.

One statement which has stuck with me and played on my mind ever since was "I love that you are so uncontaminated by the outside world"

At the time I was unsure how to respond... not least because I am not entirely convinced it is true.

I think it is genuinely impossible not to be "contaminated": I recognise my complicity in the sins of the world; and in my lifestyle and choices the many compromises I make between the values I aspire to and the reality by which I live.

Equally, I frequently feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the things that are "wrong" with the world and I recognise my own anger and frustration at situations and suffering I feel are beyond my power to control.

But on reflection, I can also acknowledge the possibility of some truth in it. And I think it is this. If I am able to live my life in a way that enables me to be less "contaminated" by the outside world it is not, I hope, to do with not seeing or being effected by the realities around me or even being implicated in them. Rather, I wonder if it  has something to do with building an inner life which enables me to begin to respond to that world without being paralysed by it.

Most of those who know me will know that my faith is hugely important to me. Most of those who know me best will also know that it is not a part of my life about which I necessarily find it easy to communicate. Sometimes it feels important to try.

For many years I have tried to commit to a routine of regular, contemplative prayer. Since moving to Carrs Lane it has been more reliable and more sustained. My prayer life has not been one of neon lights and signs from heaven and "Damascus Road" experiences; nor one of desiring to placate a vengeful God or store up brownie points for some unknown scenario after my death: rather it has been one of gradually opening up to a God who is and only can be love; opening up to a voice that whispers 'more is possible than you can imagine'.

My journey of faith has not been one towards being untouched by the world, but perhaps towards being unafraid of it... and perhaps it is this journey towards a love which overcomes fear that gives the appearance of being less "contaminated." I am not uncontaminated by the outside world. But I hope I am less afraid of it than I might otherwise be. It is, I am well aware, a journey which is far from over.

This blog is not intended to read like a bit of an ego trip. I genuinely don't think this is about ego because it is not about something achieved by my own abilities. It is about fear, and about love, and about the power of love to overcome fear. If I have managed to be less "contaminated" it is not by my own efforts but by the grace of God: for which I give thanks.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Let's talk about destitution

When we discussed with Hope Projects the idea of taking the story about our house to the media, one of our hopes was that it might be an opportunity to raise some awareness of the scandal of asylum destitution: its causes and its implications, possibly even straying into what makes destitute asylum seekers particularly vulnerable, even compared to others experiencing the effects of the deeply worrying growth in homelessness and unsuitable temporary accommodation.

It was not to be ... because it soon became apparent that asylum destitution was a topic those we spoke to were determined to studiously avoid. The thing is, I guess, destitution is inherently a deeply political topic, and if what you want to write is a nice, fluffy, 'isn't this lovely' pre-Christmas story, political, it seems, doesn't fit very well.

I am well aware my blog doesn't have quite the exposure of some of the other media we have appeared in recently, but it is the space where I get to share the stories I want to tell, or write about the issues I think need to be heard.

And I think we need to talk about asylum destitution.

This is the 21st century. This is the UK. We describe ourselves as a developed and a civilised nation. We claim to promote the virtues of freedom and justice and tolerance and respect. We are one of the wealthiest countries in a world that is richer than it has ever been.

And all too often we leave people who have come here seeking sanctuary with literally nothing.

There are people to whom we say "you are not welcome". We say it to fit in with a discourse of hatred and fear that has come to dominate the public conversation around migration. We do so to not be a 'soft touch' because somewhere in our recent history we decided that the fact people saw us a a place of welcome and safety was something to be ashamed of rather than proud of.

And so it is that in order to persuade / encourage / force these people off our soil, as a country we have decided it is appropriate to leave them with nothing. No roof over their head. No money to buy food. "No recourse to public funds": a trite phrase trotted out behind which we hide a miserable reality.

Many of those who have experienced destitution have done so as the result of a notoriously complicated asylum system which they have struggled to navigate, or because poor legal advice and representation has failed to enable them to make their case effectively. For others the fear and trauma they have experienced, or the home office's inability or unwillingness to understand the realities they have left behind, limits their ability to make a coherent case.

They include people who cannot return home because they have no papers or rights granted by any other country so by the refusal of asylum here become effectively stateless with literally nowhere to turn for help. They include those who are too terrified to dream of accepting voluntary return to a country where they fear for their life and for whom even hunger and homelessness in Britain feels like a safer option. They even include those from countries to which Britain will not send people back because its "too dangerous" ... too dangerous to deport, but not so dangerous we'll grant you asylum... answers on a postcard as to how that makes any kind of sense?! Soon, with proposed legislation changes, they could also include hundred of families with young children.

At best these people are reliant on charities struggling on a shoe string, the goodwill of random strangers or the generosity of friends who may have very little themselves. At worst they are vulnerable to disappearing into a web of exploitation and abuse. Many, eventually, with the right advice and legal support have their right to remain recognised but as they settle into life here they do so with the added burden of this experience of exclusion in a place that should have been reaching out open hands when they needed them most.

We need to talk about asylum destitution. The minority who shout a rhetoric of hate do so very vociferously. It is imperative, then, that those of us who think such issues are a scandal in our society somehow find a way to raise our many voices to speak an alternative message loudly enough to be heard.