The Radical Rural: ‘Peripheral’ Geographies of Migrant Activism
Have you ever felt that down here in Devon our perspective on the world is rather different from that of city-dwellers, and that the way we think about and do things relating to refugees might also be a bit different? A workshop bringing together academics interested in refugee issues with people working on the ground to support them has held in Exeter in July to discuss this very point. The Radical Rural: ‘Peripheral’ Geographies of Migrant Activism was organised by two PhD students at the University of Exeter, Emma Marshall and Amanda Schmidt-Scott. Emma is a long-term supporter of Refugee Support Devon, and they both have plenty of experience of working with and for refugees in various parts of the world.
The parts of the world we were focusing on in this workshop were those often characterised as peripheral, rural, out-of-the-way and remote. Places like Devon, certainly, but there were also inspiring participants working in South Wales, France and Morocco. We were asked to think and talk about what is particular about activism or practical action in support of refugees and migrants in areas outside urban political centres, and that work is best understood and supported.
We heard from several people who work directly with refugee groups to provide arts workshops, essential supplies, and much-needed opportunities for R&R, and learned how transport issues, and scattered populations can be a challenge for people in rural areas. We discovered the impressive range of small organisations, growing out of a local desire to join with neighbours do something to help (or, very often, existing networks and groups re-focusing or teaming up to work on this issue). We touched on the challenges there can sometimes be to this work in areas with more conservative views, but were heartened by rural people’s general sense of hospitality and welcome.
Some of the more theoretically minded amongst us attempted to draw together the threads of these different experiences into some more general observations about the nature of rural refugee activism, and to point out parallels with other activist causes. There was agreement that our work does not often feel particularly peripheral when we are doing it!
The afternoon was spent thinking practically and constructively about how we might move forward. First, we interviewed each other to try to distil the elements of successful peripheral action. Then we turned our attention to the future, and thought about our aims and dreams, and how we might use this knowledge of ‘what works’ to move towards our vision. The resulting learning and planning will be written up as part of a toolkit that it is hoped will be a creative contribution to our work.
Visual minutes were created by an artists as we were speaking. The results were beautiful, but also surprisingly accurate in capturing the essence and spirit of what was said.
The workshop combined practical and academic contributions with plenty of thinking, talking and doing. Thank you very much to the organisers!
Renting to Refugees – try it, you might like it!
I’m told that one of the greatest challenges for local authorities or community sponsors when it comes to making the necessary arrangements for hosting a Syrian refugee family is the availability of suitable accommodation. It’s a stipulation that accommodation for refugees being resettled here does not come from the stock of existing social housing for local people, but is secured from private landlords. Fair enough, but in practice finding enough appropriate housing has been difficult in many cases.
My wife and I own a flat in Exeter which has been lived in by a Syrian family since the spring. We live in a part of Devon where the District Council has yet to agree to sponsoring any refugee families, but owning a rental property in Exeter meant we were directed towards the City Council. We wanted to write this blog post to explain the process we needed to go through, in the hope that others might feel this is something they could look into as well.
We were put in touch with a housing development officer, who was our point of contact until the contract was signed. First, the property was inspected to see if it would be suitable. Most refugee families include several children, and most also include individuals with particular medical or educational needs, so it’s important that the space will work for them. Our flat has two bedrooms, and a separate kitchen and sitting room, but it’s a perfectly average size, nothing special. It is unfurnished, but with carpets, curtains, and some white goods.
The council team then advised us of a number of small maintenance and safety issues we needed to put right (cue a fair bit of hasty DIY!), but there was nothing that was unreasonable – safety film on internal glass doors, a self-closing arm on a fire door, that kind of thing. Even we were capable of that. We also needed to get gas and electrical safety certificates done again, even though they were only 6 months old, and to commit to an ongoing inspection/maintenance contract for services. There was some toing and froing about ventilation for a washer-dryer, which the Council considers essential, but it was all pretty straightforward.
The way it has worked for us is that we have let the flat to the Council for two years minimum, with rent at about two-thirds of market rates (paid every three months, in advance). The Council then sublets the flat to the refugee tenants, and deals with all the arrangements that entails – we have had no contact with the family, though we were notified when they moved in. So far, about six months in, we have had no problems at all. It’s worth saying that nowhere is it in writing that the property will be used for the housing of refugees, but we were assured that this would be the case, and so it has transpired.
For us, this is a simple and practical way in which we can help. We take a slight hit with the rent, but have had far fewer problems than with our previous private tenants. It was a somewhat bureaucratic process (well, it is a local authority!), but really nothing too onerous. If you are a landlord yourself, or know someone who is, with a property that might be suitable for a refugee family, we urge you to consider this option.
Welcoming Refugees in Crediton… but does everyone in Crediton want to welcome them?
Welcoming Refugees in Crediton started off a year ago with a well-attended public meeting, hosted by the local secondary school, with around 150 people present. The meeting was organised by a local steering group which was set up following concern expressed in some of the local churches that Crediton should be doing something practical to welcome refugees. We had speakers who had visited refugee camps sharing their experience, and others from Refugee Support Devon explaining about their work closer to home. At this time we asked local people to complete a pledge form, indicating the kind of support they could offer refugees. Forty people have returned these, pledging everything from accommodation to help with language learning. And over 200 people signed a petition urging Mid Devon District Council to join the county-wide scheme to take some of the Syrian refugees.
Since then we have arranged several collections of clothing, sleeping bags etc, to be sent to refugees in need (the latest one was in mid-November). We have also lobbied Mid Devon District Council with our petition and urged them to become a sponsoring local authority. This has been a lengthy process, but happily is now happening, partly thanks to strong support from some of our local councillors. We have also put forward six people/families to be foster carers for unaccompanied children.
At first we publicised our activities widely, and had no negative feedback. Recently, however, stickers have appeared on lamp posts and railings around Crediton with slogans such as: ‘Refugees/Migrants Not Welcome’ and ‘’No more Migrants. No More Refugees. How Many Terrorists? Local Families First!’
Although the stickers were swiftly removed, and were condemned by the Town Council, they have prompted active discussion in the town. We wrote an article for the local newspaper, the Crediton Country Courier, explaining how the Syrian refugee scheme works. For example, we pointed out that refugees will not be housed in council housing but in private rented houses/flats. This has generated a lively correspondence, with contributions on both sides.
We are now contemplating our next steps to change the attitudes of those who have negative views, and this could include work in schools. We’d love to hear from others about their experiences, and how they have addressed this kind of hostility in their local area.
Convenor of the Steering group
New Educational Resource on the Refugee Crisis
“Our Home Isn’t Safe Anymore – A Syrian Family’s Journey” is a pack of activities developed by Exeter-based Devon Development Education aimed at young people of secondary school age, but which could be modified for either primary school children or adults. “The resource is needed to combat extreme views about refugees commonly found in the media”, says Wendy from DDE.
There are two introductory activities and a PowerPoint presentation. However the core of the package is a decision-based role-play game in which the players take the roles of a Syrian family (mother, father, grandmother, daughter, and son). Initially, the family lives in Aleppo but when the city comes under siege, it is no longer safe to stay. They therefore decide to leave and try to reach the UK.
The game involves the players taking a series of decisions which will affect their journey, for example
What items will they take with them for the journey?
Will they pay for a truck driver to take them to the border or will they walk?
Will they stay in a refugee camp to wait for a safe option, or rush off at the first opportunity?
Do they have enough money to afford a new passport or will they have to work?
The game has been successfully trialled in several schools in Devon. The use of an interactive game to explore the issues of refugees was welcomed by the schools. Pupil engagement was high and little encouragement was needed to get them involved, with parts of the game evoking humour. The game can be used by large classes or small groups. It was also run successfully at the Respect Festival with a small group of adults where it was noticeable that they took a more analytical approach.
The pack and presentation can be downloaded for free from www.globalcentredevon.org.uk. DDE would love to hear feedback on your experiences using it.
Food for the Soul at the Guildhall
‘We need to include something about Hate Crime Awareness Week’, Michael at RSD had said, when I took responsibility for editing RSD’s new blog. My heart, I have to admit, sank slightly. What a gloomy subject, and how much more depressing that we actually need a designated week to highlight the problem. Where was the uplifting human angle going to come from here? I needn’t have worried. The drop-in event held at Exeter’s Guildhall on 11 October showcased inspiration and practical action aplenty.
Refugees and asylum seekers can be vulnerable to hate crime, as a result of differences in their dress, language, appearance and religion. Sometimes this could be as simple as a hostile comment on the street. Being made to feel unwelcome in this way can have a serious impact on the wellbeing and resilience of refugees or asylum seekers, already dealing with the trauma of involuntary displacement, and the challenges of the UK asylum process. RSD attended the drop-in to encourage the public to be welcoming to newcomers, and to share information about RSD’s work.
Fortunately, the Exeter area has not seen the rise in hate crime since the Brexit referendum that other areas of the country have suffered, but problems do occur, especially with relation to Muslim women. Reporting of hate crime by victims is low – there could be a sense that it is not appropriate to make a fuss about such things, or that involving the police will be ineffective, and potentially risky. Local police used the event to talk about their new campaign, Zero Tolerance to Hate Crime, which introduces new ways to report incidents.
Amongst the other organisations represented at the event was the Intercom Trust, which works to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in the Southwest. They have recently launched a peer support group for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers. The group meets once a month at Intercom’s discreet offices in central Exeter. Both those fleeing persecution on the grounds of sexual orientation, and LGBT people who are refugees for a different reason are warmly welcomed. Refugees dealing with the challenges of establishing a new life in an unfamiliar country might feel issues around sexuality are a long way down their list of priorities, but, Paul the office manager explains, the friendship and support of other group members can help with the practical side of life too. Anyone interested in attending the group should call Intercom’s helpline on 0800 612 3010 for details. Like Intercom on Facebook for information on current activities. Paul also has a fantastic selection of excellent rainbow-coloured pens, with which he’s very generous!
Just across the way from Intercom was Ubuntu, a not-for-profit multicultural counselling service. Ubuntu is commissioned by the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group and provides services free of charge to those from a non-White British background. Because of the way their funding works, said Salma, one of the counsellors, refugees or asylum seekers could only be referred to Ubuntu if they had been the victim of a crime (not only hate crimes) that had been reported to the police, or if they had self-referred to the Victim Care Unit (0300 3030 554 or firstname.lastname@example.org). The counselling they receive does not have to relate to the crime in question, and can be a very helpful way of talking through traumatic experiences, or of simply relieving the burden by sharing with someone.
Talking to these dedicated people, as well as sharing information about RSD, and passing on our message of welcome and tolerance, I went away feeling heartened. Hate crime is obviously a serious and despicable social scourge. But for every hate criminal, there are others in our local community who care, share, and help.
National Hate Crime Awareness Week ran from 8th to 15th October
The True Story of Young People in Calais
Totnes Civic Hall recently hosted a packed fundraising Ceilidh with the Green Party and Singing 4 Refugees. Local people generously donated £459 to the Care4Calais appeal to help unaccompanied minors in the Calais camp.
After reading of the rapes of seven 14-16 year olds in the camp (Independent, March 5th), substantiated by Medicins Sans Frontiers, Pauline Hastings, a semi-retired educational psychologist living in Totnes, was compelled to travel there and help in any way she could. She worked with Care4Calais and the Refugee Youth Service. Now returned, she feels that it’s vitally important to tell the true story of the camps.
Immediately on driving into the camp, the intimidation by riot police began; sometimes they won’t let you in, sometimes they won’t let you out, sometimes intimidating groups of them stroll around the camp for no apparent reason. “It raises the blood pressure,” she says.
“Getting out of your vehicle, the stench hits you. A nearby chemical works spews out sulphurous emissions, a cement factory pours out fine dust to clog your lungs, and the camp itself is on a toxic landfill site. Since the demolition of the southern part of the camp, bulldozers continue to churn up asbestos. Not surprisingly the ‘camp cough’ is rampant.”
Pauline’s mission was obvious: Can the seriously ‘at risk’ boys with UK ties be fast-tracked or at least prioritised for asylum in the UK? She talked with medics, lawyers, community leaders, long-term volunteers and some teenagers, as well as Yvette Cooper MP, who re-visited the camp whilst Pauline was there. Whilst no-one disagreed with fast-tracking abused boys, there seemed no political will to make it happen. Although they are doing an amazing job, medics hadn’t been able to record names, so raped and abused children are going straight back to the same living arrangements, often with several unrelated adult men.
“Nothing happens,” Pauline says, “Lawyers process cases as the papers come and take up some cases of police violence. It’s near impossible to find these seriously ‘at risk’ boys. One of the community leaders I talked with thought the very youngest boys were most at risk, and should be prioritised.”
Care4Calais commissioned a survey, assisted by several translators. The moral of many amongst the 5000 people in the camp was very low after the demolition of their shelters, shops, and mosque. Whilst helping to move some shelters, Pauline witnessed first-hand the cruel way riot police pushed volunteers back, whilst bulldozers crushed shelters, grabbing them up with their entire contents and dumping it all into skips. “There are rats everywhere. Huge rats,” she says, “I witnessed a huge fire which raged like an inferno, burning up the remainder of the shelters. Two fire engines sat idle, whilst the authorities let it burn.”
In an attempt to lift spirits, Pauline helped to organise activities such as cricket, football, art, and music projects. She encouraged an abused and passive 13 year old boy to join in a game of cricket and was thrilled to see his shy smile. Informal English lessons in small community groups were popular, and when Pauline’s husband Steve – a music teacher in a Devon school – arrived, they together delivered singalong English sessions. The money raised from the Totnes ceilidh was used to buy a selection of drums and small musical instruments.
“The Baloo and Hummingbird Safe Space volunteers are steadily making progress in gaining the trust of some very damaged young people. Most of them have witnessed unimaginable horrors”, says Pauline. (Baloo Safe Space is run by the Refugee Youth Service, and Hummingbird Safe Space by the Hummingbird Project).
Since that first visit, Steve and Pauline have now been to Calais six times, most recently in mid-August. The Refugee Youth Service Facebook page has a videoclip of Steve and Pauline involved in a musical activity with boys regarded as ‘hard to reach’.
Here in Devon, Pauline and Steve continue to lobby anyone and everyone to give a chance to some of these abused boys, and to facilitate their asylum in the UK. They support an unaccompanied teenaged Afghani boy here, and Steve offers music sessions to refugees. Steve and Pauline also run a choir, Singing4Refugees, which meets every Friday evening in Totnes. The group, which includes some refugees currently living in Plymouth, sings at markets and events to raise awareness of and money for refugees. They are always looking for new singers and musicians, of any ability, and are currently fundraising to buy cheap mobile phones for unaccompanied minors in the Calais camp. Please see their Facebook page for further details, and some great photos and videoclips!