Refugees are demonised by the mainstream media and scapegoated by our politicians, but groups in Sussex are extending a welcome hand to ordinary people who’ve made extraordinary efforts to flee war and injustice.
Early autumn sun, balmy days and calm seas off the South Coast saw many more refugees try their luck in a variety of more or less seaworthy craft across the Channel. The sight of these tired bedraggled travellers, single youngsters, families with small children and mothers with babies strapped to their fronts, toiling up the beach has aroused compassion and pity from many in Sussex.
But in the populist press it inspired aggressive headlines, such as highest numbers arriving in a single day or ways to prevent them coming at all. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, spoke of turning their boats back in mid-channel. All against the background of the Nationality and Borders Bill. It is now going through Parliament and could criminalise the RNLI, for example, for rescuing immigrants at sea.
Beyond Westminster… a story of empathy and kindness
A proposal to send refugees to islands off Albania while their applications are processed is also being considered. It is claimed it would address the problem of the gangs running illegal crossings. But there is no attempt to open legal routes, so it is hard to believe the case for these government proposals.
Despite all this, there is another story of human decency, empathy and kindliness. It is also a true story, beyond the fictions that cloud sensational front pages. It is a story of ordinary people who care and want to reach out to other ordinary people in trouble.
Sussex is no exception. People and charities have risen to the challenge, offering befriending, accommodation and finance. And it is no surprise in a county which has two major towns, Brighton & Hove and Hastings, and one village, East Hoathly, belong to the City of Sanctuary Movement. During Refugee Week in June, Hastings held its Sanctuary Festival, bringing together the people and groups that make this town a community of sanctuary.
Sanctuary Festival included poetry, art, storytelling … and lots of fun
Originally called the Festival by the Lake, and now in its fifth year (online last year), it describes the day as “sending out a simple message of welcome”. Polly Gifford, the organiser, wanted to “celebrate the power of solidarity and community to bring hope to those who have lost everything”. It was hosted this year by the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery and was a day of live music, poetry and art. There was also storytelling, and activities for children, with food stalls from many cultures. And also lots of fun!
As part of the Together with Refugees campaign, there were orange hearts everywhere – reflecting the refugee flag and the colour of life belts. The festival as always was free but the crowd-funding page invites people to donate money to Hastings Supports Refugees.
The festival was timed to coincide with the museum’s exhibition Crossings, Community and Refuge which featured the Lampedusa Cross, on loan from the British Museum. This object is a poignant reminder of the dangerous journeys so many people make. The wood came from a boat carrying 500 refugees that caught fire off the tiny island of Lampedusa in 2013. Only 155 were saved but the islanders cared for them, fed and clothed them and buried their dead.
A carpenter, Francesco Tuccio, made wooden crosses out of the wreck and gave them to the survivors as symbols of hope. The wood he made specially for the museum still retains its original paint, a reminder of the brightly painted boat of which it had once been a part.
Chips all round! Refugees get a meal thanks to Hastings well-wishers
It is displayed alongside Syrian artist Issam Koubraj’s sculpture of upcycled bicycle mudguards. This represents boats packed with burnt matchstick people – Dark Water Burning World. The exhibition continues until December.
The kindness of those Italian islanders was repeated here, in Sussex. Only the week before the festival, a group of 32 people, including children, were rescued by the local RNLI and brought to the beach in Hastings. They were greeted warmly by those there. One, an Arab speaker from the Refugee Buddy Project, organised hot food from a chip shop, paid for by a whip-round of members of the public. One young man offered a pouch of tobacco saying that it was all that he could do.
Hastings Supports Refugees arrived with welcome packs and gifts, which thrilled the children. Everyone – police, refugees and locals – gained from the conversations on the beach whilst waiting for the transport to Dover.
In Lewes, the Launchpad Collective offers practical help to refugees, with English courses, skills, job finding and befriending. Manal, a Syrian lady, cooked delicious pastries for a recent party at Lewes Football Club. One of its Arabic speaking members welcomed everyone in Arabic with the words انتم منا وفينا which means “you are part of us”.
Protests against Nationality and Borders Bill will climax in London demo
The club itself has made strenuous efforts to bring the Afghan women footballers to safety. The Lewes Organisation for the Support of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (LOSRAS) hosted a morning of making orange hearts with messages of hope. These were then held aloft at Lewes Castle Gatehouse. People were also encouraged to write postcards to local MPs, opposing the Nationality and Borders Bill.
There is to be a week of action, with towns along the South Coast joining communities up and down the country in vigils, rallies and demonstrations. The aim is to show solidarity with those who only want to find peace and hope for their future and that of their children. It will culminate with a demonstration in Parliament Square on the 20 October, designed to coincide with the committee stage of the bill. There will be a strong Sussex contingent, armed with their orange hearts.
All this explains why we have reason to be optimistic as it is clear that the Government does not have massive support for its proposed draconian measures.
The thousands offering to help Afghan refugees – and the outrage that was engendered by the Foreign Office’s initial stance on the Chevening students – should indicate that there is no mandate for cruelty. The RNLI continues to rescue people from the Channel despite jibes about being a ‘taxi service for migrants’. In fact, this attack from Nigel Farage resulted in the charity raising an all-time record of £200,000 in a single day from members of the public.
For details of the rally in Parliament Square, London click here.
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