One of the aims of WE-Hope is to bring the stories of those who experienced displacement within Europe as a result of war decades ago together with the stories of those who have fled conflict and mass atrocity and arrived in Europe more recently. In this way, we believe we can promote a greater understanding of shared suffering and hence a more welcoming and tolerant environment today. A similar message was powerfully conveyed in a UNICEF film of 2019. Our aspiration is also to show how art and creativity can help to strengthen this message. (See our earlier blogpost.)
As the project has progressed, and partly as a result of our approaches to coping with Covid and lockdown, we have developed an additional intergenerational dimension within WE-Hope. Most of the stories we have collected are about refugees’ own experiences of escape, arrival and (for some) settlement in Europe. We are very grateful to our friends at the Kent Refugee Action Network for helping us to collect testimonies from some of those who have chosen to work with and support refugees. Often, they are older or retired, and possess a wealth of experience that can assist refugees and organisations that advocate for refugee rights.
Andrew spent his career in international aid work, with his last posting to Afghanistan. On his retirement and return to the UK, he felt that there was more he could do here to combat the ‘really harsh response from this government’ towards refugees. He began by mentoring a young African refugee – in March 2020, just as the lockdown was imposed! They spent a lot of time on their mobile phones. As the lockdown eased, they were able to meet more often, go for walks, share ways to solve problems. ‘We have built up such a friendship now’, Andrew says. He has also learned a lot, which he hopes can strengthen local charities:
I have learned so, so much about the local refugee ecosystem … there’s a lot more going on than most people think, a lot more going on … there are some fantastic local refugee charities out there, often operating under the radar, doing amazing work that is under-supported, under-appreciated in their local communities.
Lynn, like Andrew, is retired. A white South African who was active in the anti-apartheid movement, she was considered an ‘alien’ when she first came to live in the UK many decades ago. She believes that the hostile environment towards refugees, especially of African and Asian heritage, is very longstanding but has intensified in recent years. Lynn has mentored a few young refugees. In her experience, they have been ‘self-sufficient, disciplined and responsible’ – yet society here is harsh. She sees her role as supporting them to survive that harshness.
Laura enjoyed a privileged upbringing and is a former English teacher. She had a friend who was volunteering at a refugee charity, who told her about the conditions that refugees faced. ‘I realised that government did not support vulnerable people who aren’t as lucky as you are. That exposure really shocked and upset me’, she said. She began volunteering herself, assisting refugees with housing, council appointments, etc., also with English lessons.
These and other stories will soon be available to listen to in our digital archive. Watch for future posts!
This article has been written by Heather Hughes, University of Lincoln.