I have never posted about politics on my blog before, even though I consider myself to be extremely interested in politics. But I can’t ignore the horrific images that I’m seeing on a daily basis: of children separated from their families on the border of Macedonia; of toddlers washed up on the beach; of babies born in railway stations in Hungary because their mothers were refused ambulances.
These things did not happen in a war zone, they happened in Europe, where there is infrastructure to support people in need and an agreement that we have a duty to shelter refugees (The 1951 Geneva Convention). All these situations could have been prevented were it not for the ideology that says ‘we cannot make it easy or attractive for people to come here, or more will come’.
But imagine a situation that would make you take your children on a treacherous boat journey, hide yourself under the bonnet of a car where you are crushed against the engine, cram your family into a refrigerated vehicle, give birth in the streets, or sleep in tents under flyovers. All these things are still ‘more attractive’ than living in a war zone.
Many of the refugees are coming from Syria, currently in upheaval due to civil war, drought and the rise of the Islamic State. I traveled to Syria in 2006, and it is a country that will always be close to my heart due to the incredible welcome me and my friends received there. After planning to volunteer in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, war broke out two days after our arrival. Our group was evacuated with the help of the UN to neighbouring Syria. Once there we travelled to Damascus, Palmyra, Deir es Zoud and Aleppo. Throughout Syria our experience was the same; wherever we went we were invited into people’s homes to share food and conversation so frequently that it was unusual for a day to go by without receiving an invitation into someone’s home. We had tea made for us, food made for us, were taken out for dinner, had ice-creams bought for us, lifts given and our onward travel paid for, and we were not people in need! How can we forget these generous-hearted people?
There are two things that strike me as terrible injustices when I look back on that experience, and contrast it with the experiences of families fleeing war across Europe. The first is that the very people who were so welcoming to us (despite our country being involved in a war with their closest neighbour) are now finding that although they are in desperate need of sanctuary, our country will not find a place for them. The second thing is that we were so easily able to travel despite the unrest, because we are Europeans, and because when war and other international crises happen UK citizens are quickly evacuated.
It seems to me that the criteria for freedom of travel is ‘if you are in need, you cannot come here’. I feel sick to think that a select few can travel anywhere in the world, but our country stops people in need from entering, letting families and children drown rather than offering safe passage. Is this how we want to treat our fellow humans? As a parent I strongly believe that we are responsible for creating the world which we pass on to our children. I very much want to be part of creating a world where we help people who are just trying to escape desperate situations. I think it is vital that we start to listen to and share some of the stories of people who are travelling across Europe escaping war and persecution, particularly ‘in real life’ rather than online. When I read the comments sections on articles on the refugee crisis I wonder if the lack of face to face contact that comes with the internet age disconnects us from our ability to humanise and empathise with the suffering that people are experiencing. When we meet another human face to face and hear their story, I think we have an instinctive connection and empathy for the other person’s experience.
Because I can’t just stand by anymore, I’ve joined a local group called Sussex Refugee Solidarity, set up by a friend of mine as a grassroots response to the crisis. Our aims are to show that Sussex welcomes refugees by setting up some local initiatives to create community between refugees and those in solidarity with refugees, and to challenge the perception that refugees are ‘burdens’ by offering opportunities for both refugees and non-refugees to share their skills with each other.
If you are based in the Brighton or Sussex area, then please do join our group. I will also be attending a Brighton Sees Syria and Refugees Welcome Here Day of Action in Brighton tomorrow at 12pm, along with some other families. You can find us under a Sussex Refugee Solidarity banner. We would love to meet some likeminded people who want to make Brighton and Sussex a welcoming place for refugees.