The challenges facing refugees across the globe are universal, from the millions in Uganda, Lebanon and Bangladesh to those who have fled persecution, conflict and hunger and sought sanctuary here in the UK. They come to a new place seeking refuge from conflict and fear and pursuing acceptance and a chance for them to call their new place ‘home’.
We should celebrate those countries, communities and people who have supported refugees and we should be committed to treat refugees seeking to rebuild their lives here with respect, dignity and care. This begins in our own communities.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I led the Love to Learn education support project for children from a refugee background in Wandsworth, run by the Katherine Low Settlement. Most of the young people are born here or came here when young, but they face many barriers to education. These include having parents who come from a very different education system and may have missed years of education themselves, who have often suffered trauma and mistrust authority – including teachers. Many children I worked with live in over-crowded homes and getting space they could work at as well as a volunteer mentor for an hour a week made a big difference to their education.
I worked in Bosnia after the war to rebuild villages and support returning refugees. I felt a connection between all the people on the move there with all the millions around the world. I realised the huge scale of the travel of refugees within countries and around the world and I’ve never lost the feeling that it could be me. What if my family had to flee and arrive in a new country and start again. What welcome could I expect, what help for my children to fulfil their potential and be happy?
The villagers I worked with had just a few minutes notice to leave their homes as soldiers came. Although the war was near them they didn’t think it would actually happen to them, any more than I would. I was fascinated by what they decided to take, and what were the best choices. They thought they would be back within a couple of weeks but were gone for ten years. It turns out that the most useful things to take are warm blankets and your house deeds.
The challenge of ‘building back better’ after COVID-19 must include refugees who are already facing huge challenges. Here in the UK many refugees have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and can’t even receive Universal Credit. Research from the Children’s Society shows that ‘no recourse to public funds’ and other immigration policies are leaving thousands of children growing up in long-term poverty, trapped in cycles of homelessness
Refugee Day is a celebration of the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. The theme is ‘Imagine’ and I’d like to imagine a world in which refugees will be welcomed, honoured and treated with respect and care wherever they decide to call their new home.
‘Wandsworth Welcomes Refugees’ is my local group. We’re a small group of committed people who celebrate the lives of refugees who live locally. We encourage volunteering with local organisations, challenge our local council and have supported Syrian refugees in very practical ways. One of my best friends is a physics teacher and is amazing as she goes from work to teach in the GCSE group one evening a week with Love to Learn. We’re a small number and we could do so much more with more support. There are groups like ours all over the country that you could offer support to this Refugee Week.