In January 2010, I started work at a senior school in Gloucester. My role was to see students who were having problems with their mental health or mental wellbeing. This brought me into contact with a group of students that had fled their own country because they were in fear of their lives or being forced to join military organisations.
Having been a mental health nurse for over twenty years. I was only too aware of the terrible situation that people with mental health problems found themselves in. Despite this, I was totally unprepared for the dire situations that this group of students had experienced. Their situations were so far from my own limited life experiences, that it was difficult to comprehend. This was compounded by the experiences they had faced to get to this country. Young children of 14 years of age had faced brutality, were often in fear of their lives, saw others die on the journey and lived in awful conditions. All this in an effort to get to a place that they felt would be safe.
They then put all their effort into learning the language and getting an education. Finally, at the age of 18 years they then had to apply to remain in this country. This is a very difficult time for most 18 year olds but this was exponentially difficult for these students.
During my contact with these students, I found myself feeling overwhelmed by their experiences and horrified that they had experienced this at such a young age. Many of these students were clearly showing symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
Due to my work with these students, I was introduced to GARAS and their fantastic work. I was so glad that an organisation existed to help the students and others needing support when they arrived in Gloucestershire. This led me to applying and becoming a Trustee for GARAS in 2018.
Eighty years ago this week, ten Jewish boys who had escaped Nazi persecution on the Kindertransport, arrived in Gloucester to be cared for in a hostel in Alexandria Road – an anniversary we are commemorating at a GARAS event on Tuesday 18th June . In the last few months, Michael Zorek, the son of one of the boys has managed to track down the only ‘boy’ still living (now in his nineties); the sons and daughters of 7 others; and the grandchildren of both the refugee couple who looked after them and of the chair of Gloucester Association for Aiding Refugees (GAAR) the organisation that brought them here. Through the Kindertransport and the philanthropy of GAAR, the boys survived and went on to live fulfilled lives, though most never saw their parents again.
Their story has many resonances with the experiences of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) today. Then, many thousands who sought to flee Nazi persecution were refused entry for fear of a ‘Jewish flood’ and were subsequently killed – the 10,000 or so children who came on the Kindertransport were a small number compared with those unable to get out. Today, we are supporting over 80 UASC in Gloucestershire, but because of Government inaction thousands of others who arrive in Europe and who have the right (through the Dubs amendment) to come to the UK because they have relatives here, have been unable to do so and are sleeping rough in places like Calais where they are vulnerable to traffickers.
Back in 1938, the Government refused to foot the bill for the Kindertransport, so concerned citizens mounted a mammoth effort to raise funds, provide foster homes and welcome the children. Today, much of GARAS’s work depends on the efforts of volunteers, and the donations that we receive from the public.
In 1940, asylum seekers and refugees from German territories were interned in camps as potential enemy aliens. Today, many refugees are put into secure holding centres whilst their claim is considered.
While we should celebrate the efforts of the people of Gloucester to rescue and support the ten Kindertransport boys, we shouldn’t look through rose-tinted glasses at the past. And despite the many wonderful Gloucestershire residents who welcome asylum seekers and refugees into our county today, we shouldn’t forget the ‘hostile environment’ for asylum seekers imposed by the Home Office and the minority of people who would rather close our borders to those in need.
Today sees the start of Refugee Week, an opportunity to concentrate a bit more on the experience of refugees and all who have been displaced from their homes.
A memory popped up on my facebook page this morning showing Khalid Hossein and the watch he brought with him from Afghanistan. His memory reminded me of time I witnessed an object of importance.
We had collected a family and brought them to their home. They arrived with very little, just a small bag each. Life had been tough, there had been little to help them manage in their first host country. As we introduced them to their new home, letting them understand a few simple instructions to help them settle for their first night, the father pulled a bag of coffee from his bag (he had been told coffee here isn’t good!) and then he pulled out a small battered coffee pot and proceeded to make himself a cup.
He wanted to keep some element of normality. He wanted to start to feel at home and he wanted a connection with his past. What stories could that coffee pot tell? Had it been handed down? I dont know, but I found it very moving.
What would you bring?
PS He tells me now that he is very happy that he can find decent coffee and continues to use his pot on a daily basis.
This morning I pressed my nose against the window of our old GARAS building to see how things are progressing.
They have already demolished some walls and it is changing from the place we knew.
I had wondered how I would feel about this, after all it was our “home” for 18 years.
It was fine, it is just a building.
Because the reality is home really is where those you care about are, it really is about what is created.
And we have been really fortunate, because we were able to bring “our family” with us.
Refugee Week is fast approaching, a week we can focus even more on the situations faced by asylum seekers and refugees and bring these more to the attention of us all.
This year we are combining events across the week with opportunities to tell a number of stories and to celebrate the welcome the Gloucestershire has made in the past at various times and now with the work of GARAS, World Cafe, Cheltenham Welcomes Refugees, Stroud Refugee Group and all those groups and individuals who make a difference. It was lovely to celebrate the 5th Birthday of World Cafe last Saturday at Brunswick Gardens.
There are a number of events coming up available to view here.
We hope you can join us at some of these events especially on the 18th June at St Mary de Crypt as we welcome Michael Zorek looking to the past for Kinder Transport children and how Gloucestershire continues to be a place today where children seek sanctuary from places of conflict and war and the part GARAS plays in their support, well being and integration.
Last night I had the privilege of viewing the stunning watercolours of Derek Robertson currently on display at ‘Nature in Art’ at Twigworth, Gloucestershire. Derek has been studying and painting wildlife for many years, mostly concentrating on birds. His current exhibition extends his repertoire by incorporating the beauty of birds in their migration with the human stories of movement and migration. He vividly shows the human cost, having visited The Calais Jungle in its last days, Sicily and parts of the Middle East.
These are stunning works of art and very moving. It is always remarkable that art can tell a story to which words cannot do justice. At one point in his presentation to us yesterday evening, Derek talked of the image of migrating birds flying across the Mediterranean Sea, while below them human beings are in peril making journeys in dreadful conditions and unsure of their reception even if they get across safely.
His images combine his skills as a wildlife artist and his value of humanity, interplaying in a wonderful and challenging way.
I can thoroughly recommend a trip out as this has to be experienced for yourself. I expect you will be moved like I was and ask yourself those same questions – at a time of huge upheaval, what does it mean to share this planet and what does it mean to be human in times of turmoil?
In view of the hideous incident in New Zealand and the hate that leads to such a terrible crime, I would like to double up our efforts to ensure that we succeed in our attempt to create a world record today in our Big Hug.
It may seem trivial to be promoting such an event at such a time, but surely it is only by standing shoulder to shoulder that we can say “enough”? Surely it is through recognising our common humanity that we can change the world?
So if you live in Gloucestershire and have a nationality that is not British and have ID to show that, please come and join us. Please help us send out a different message.