Everyone deserves a friend

A privilege of my role is going into schools to speak about refugees and the work we do. With children you never know what will come up.

Today I went to a lovely school in Cheltenham and received support from both Gardners Lane Primary and Oakwood Primary School. The children had had a non-uniform day and also baked cakes.

They had also designed poster during Refugee Week and I was asked to give out the prizes to the winners in each year group.

The posters are lovely and very heart warming. The youngest winner had written I welcome refugees…. because everyone deserves a friend!

The oldest: we should always welcome everyone. So they can be safe from the war. I think everyone can live where they want to. Somewhere safe.

What can I say? beautifully and simply summed up.

On my return to the office I sat with someone as we cried because his family is not living somewhere safe, because they cannot get out and because they very desperately need a friend to help make this possible.

(if I can work out the technology I shall share the posters!)

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A Personal Reflection

To end off the Guest Blogs we have a lovely reflection form a volunteer. Interestingly I spoke , last week, to a man in New York whose father came to Gloucester in 1939 on the Kinder transport.

My mother and her two sisters were sent to the UK in 1938 aged nine, eight and five. They were sent from Germany by their Catholic mother who had a Jewish father, as she knew they were in danger under Hitler’s rule. They came via Holland where they had been living with their mother. A Catholic/Jewish charity sponsored their visas to the UK. They were sent to various Catholic boarding schools in Scotland and England and were told that they must say they were Dutch and not German and they lost their mother tongue as a result. My mother has vivid memories of lying in bed at night crying for her mother. 

Later, when my mother was about 15, she and her sisters were taken under the wing of a wonderful couple from Liverpool, who became their guardians and gave them a taste of a warm and comfortable home life. The couple, who were childless, were both professors at Liverpool University and encouraged my mother and sisters in their higher education achievements.

My mother has now lived in the UK for 80 years (30 years in Gloucestershire) and I am forever grateful for the generosity and welcome of the people and government of the UK. And this is why I am proud to support the work of GARAS.

All the best 

Clare John (the Curtain maker!)


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Lifeboats, Clowns and Stories

It is appropriate to post this on a Tuesday when we particularly provide our psychotherapeutic support. Kate reflects on a wider picture from her experience at Beyond the Border and an opportunity to think what happens beyond GARAS!

The Sea was the theme for this year’s 25th ‘Beyond the Border’ Storytelling Festival in Wales. Amid tales of mythical sea voyages such as the Odyssey, I attended a stimulating discussion: ‘Mediterranean Migrations Today’. The panel included David Hughes, Head of the European Commission Office in Wales, Lily Eckersley-Jones, a Director of the Atlantic Pacific Rescue Boat charity, Isobel Wolfe, representing The Flying Seagulls Project and Syed Najibi, who came to the UK in 2013 as an Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Child (UASC) from Afghanistan.

David provided context and statistics about the migration crisis; outlining EC initiatives which he claimed have helped to manage the situation and reduce the number of lives lost at sea. I imagine I was not alone in feeling uncomfortable with a seeming disconnect between bureaucratic policy-making and the desperate, continuing struggles experienced by so many migrants reaching European shores.

Atlantic Pacific NGO, (based at UWC Atlantic College, where the festival was held), provides international lifeboats and crew training. They have been actively helping rescue efforts in Greece and off the coast of Libya. Lily spoke movingly about the harrowing conditions so many people face in the hands of ruthless smugglers, who will often throw people overboard (to avoid their boats being captured) without caring that many cannot swim. She described how modern 360-degree camera technology used to record rescue efforts (and provide vital evidence of conditions on board the boats), is helping to train volunteer crew.

The Flying Seagull Project has brought fun and laughter to refugee children in camps across Europe, with their mix of clowning, singing, circus shows and games. Isobel spoke passionately about the vital importance of providing a space (and the permission) to play for kids who have been so affected by trauma and their parents’ worries about basic survival. Sometimes the troupe of volunteer clowns will get permission to build their big top; other times it’s an impromptu show on waste-ground in the open air, bringing smiles and laughter to where they’re needed most.

Before I trained as a psychotherapist, I had an eclectic career in the arts – theatre, carnival, storytelling and even training as a clown. The Seagulls really rocked my boat and I felt tempted to dust off my red nose to run away with the circus!

The project, which has been running for over 10 years, puts volunteers through a week’s training to develop the basic therapeutic skills and insight to work with refugee children appropriately. They proved a magnet for kids at the festival; I loved seeing the sheer delight on my 6-year-old son’s face as he mastered hula-hooping and spinning plates.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between such moments of joy and the harsh realities so many refugee children have to face on a daily basis. Syed Najibi spent five months in prison-like conditions in a camp in Greece, after fleeing Afghanistan as a boy. He remembered guards regularly beating him with sticks, living in overcrowded conditions, hearing the screams of his neighbours as they awoke from nightmares. The only food each day was a burger and literally two chips. He considered himself lucky, as some people had been there in the camp for years.

Since 2017 Syed has worked with Phosphoros Theatre Company bringing the unseen stories of UASCs to light. Their current production: ‘Dear Home Office: Still Pending’ is being performed in Sheffield for Refugee Week, by eight refugee and asylum-seeking young men from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Albania. The show was born in a NW London Supported Housing project and explores the challenges of coming of age in extreme circumstances, in a way that sounds uplifting, funny, educational and inspiring.

I believe we’re part of one body, we are all connected”, he told us with heartfelt clarity, “We can’t ignore the suffering some people are experiencing or become complacent”. He spoke about the media bias determined to present refugees and asylum seekers as victims or bad people. “We each have our own stories, dreams and reasons for being here”.

It was this idea of the power in sharing stories which sparked a wider discussion about how we overcome the prejudice and pervasive denial about the migrant crisis that exists in many areas of the UK. I was inspired to hear from audience members about exciting projects aiming to support refugees in sharing personal and traditional stories, recipes, proverbs and songs, particularly with British people who may be ‘fearful of others’ outside their own culture. This sharing of our humanity, celebrating what connects us and makes us different, is a vital step in overcoming ignorance and fear.

Through my work with GARAS, I have learnt how sharing stories can challenge our preconceptions. I recall telling a folktale called ‘The Stone Soup’ to young Palestinian man. It’s a story of how hungry strangers use three stones in a cooking pot to convince the fearful people of a town to each share a small amount of their food in order to make a meal that everyone enjoys. “I never thought that stones could bring people together and build community” he said. “Where I grew up, stones were only weapons to throw at the soldiers”.

I returned home from Wales with renewed hope and inspiration, and the seeds of some creative ideas to cultivate, particularly during 2019, as we celebrate 20 years of GARAS.

http://www.atlanticpacific.org.uk

http://www.theflyingseagullproject.com/

To apply as a volunteer contact: apply@theflyingseagullproject.com

http://refugeeweek.org.uk/events/dear-home-office-still-pending-phosphoros-theatre/

Kate Smith

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A GEM of a job

Here is another blog in our series, an mouth watering reflection on one of the many benefits there are of working in this field – Editor

My role is to support individuals gain employment, get into training or take up voluntary work and the lack of English does not stop many individuals trying to carve out a career and use their many and varied skills to contribute to society and the local and national economy. There is however one currency that seems to need no formal language skills and shows the human spirit in all its generous glory. It never ceases to amaze me and I am forever surprised by the generosity offered to me.

I have been invited to sit and eat breakfast at 10.30 with a family, while I worked through a CV pulling at warm flatbreads and popping delicious big olives into my mouth. In another home, surprised by being offered a full Syrian spread for lunch, with an insistence that I sit and take part, I put my laptop down and eat food I have never tasted before and disappear into culinary delights, dabbing weakly at oily smears on my keyboard. The lack of a common language makes no difference where food is concerned.

Ice-creams soaked in fruit juice and cream, chocolate, sweet lemon teas and Arabic coffees, are all regular offerings with minimum fuss but deep hospitality, sharing need and conversation, warm open gestures and expectation that I will partake and will enjoy.

I do.  

However the corrections I have received, gently and unconsciously delivered by my clients, requires me to review how we all take so much for granted. The assumptions I have made, and, when faced with individuals who are struggling to get their head round the processes and procedures of this land, while dealing with deep scars and separations, recovering from torture and injustice, is deeply humbling.

And yes, never more so when someone fasting offers you coffee and biscuits during Ramadan.

It is extraordinary what one day can bring.  

By GEM worker Sarah Fotheringham employed by GARAS on the GEM project.

http://www.glosgem.org/

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A Surprise Meeting

My daughter was married on May 19th. She and Adam had been working on the event for a couple of days at the Tythe Barn, Stanway. They both work in Events and the place looked fantastic.

Adam, my soon to be son-in-law,  asked me if I wanted a microphone practice, if so come to the barn early tomorrow, Saturday, morning.

I didn’t sleep well that night, speeches are not my thing, so I arrived about 8.00am. As I parked up and walked towards the barn perimeter, a yellow vis jacket met me, “Hallo sir can I help you?”

We exchanged pleasantries I explained who I was but the man was still not letting me past. Adam had told him he would be at the venue at 8.30. I was clearly to wait….outside.

I tried small talk, he lived in Gloucester and had done for six years, did I know Gloucester? 

I explained the only time I visited the city was when I did voluntary work.

“Where?”

“At GARAS.” 

His eyes lit up, “Did I know Hannah, Adele, Farouq?” And many other names I didn’t know.

The centre had been a great help to him when he arrived from his African country of origin.

Muhammad, we were now on first name terms, walked me to the barn and we discussed all manner of things about the situation in his home country but also how he had settled in Gloucester and was happy there. He had been working security for sometime and was used to the weird hours. His VW Polo was parked adjacent to the venue and he talked about his flat and friends.

He then asked me what I did at Garas? I told him my wife made up curtains and I hung them for people who had just moved into an empty flat.

“You know my cousin Ahmed.  You hung his curtains. He was out the first time and you came back to do them.”

I remembered, he had gone to the mosque and forgotten me. Muhammad laughed, that was his cousin. 

Adam arrived, Muhammad waved as he drove off and checked that 11pm would be good for that evening.

Makes life worthwhile.

Rob

( some names have been anonomised)

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Supporting Unaccompanied Children

Year on year, more children and young people are forced to leave without their families, to make a journey to safety. For many,  the long journey to safety is extremely dangerous and they experience exploitation, violence and abuse along the way. On arriving to the UK, the process of claiming asylum is very complicated and confusing. The trauma the children and young people have suffered prior to arriving in the UK, on the journey here and again once arrived (in seeking protection as well as acclimatising to a new culture, language and way of life), all have a very large and significant impact on the young peoples  well-being. 

In Gloucestershire there are a significant number of such children who have come alone, unaccompanied from all over the world. With increasing numbers of young people arriving in Gloucester, GARAS extended their long running therapy service to establishing a  specific therapy programme for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) of which I have the privilege to be part of. Our small but busy service supports young people psychologically through 1:1 therapy sessions and groups.

For refugee week, I thought you might like to hear about one of the last groups activities, where we ran a very simple but striking activity, using ‘The Tree of Life’ exercise as a way of reclaiming our identity through using the simple but beautiful use of the tree as a visual metaphor for our lives. Through this process developed by the Dulwich Centre Foundation, one can uncover aspects of yourself shaped by the past and then actively cultivate your tree to reflect the kind of person you want to be moving forward; It can reflect back to us the paths through our past–which in turn create new horizons in our future.

This particular group hosted ten young people aged between 14 and 22. They were from Albania, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq each of who had come to the UK alone. Step by Step, week by week we worked through different aspects of our activity.  The young people were delighted to see pens, paints and crayons laid out to begin our drawing activity! The first step/week in the activity was to draw a tree. There were many beautiful trees drawn from the Afghan pine, to the Mediterranean of Cypress (national tree in Iran) alongside giant dreamed of palm trees and imagined trees hosting beautiful red flowers.

In turn, we acknowledged our roots, where we came from, our ancestors, land, language and heritage, our cultural make up, now many thousands of miles away from the young people. The young people talked about their heavy hearts, the longing of the food cooked by mothers and aunts around the fire, the stories and songs that were now only an echo in their memory. Some shared fear and concern for their remaining family and friends, challenges of acculturating to new lands and the struggle to learn English. We shared the need for roots, and the sadness we can feel when roots are denied us, ripped from under us and how to manage that deep and complicated grief. 

Some of the young people reflected on the despair of being in Calais (the unofficial refugee camp) but how it was amazing to see how makeshift schools, churches, mosques, restaurants and arriving there. How people came together to eat, to pray, to play and gave each other hope and courage for the next phase of life journey. 

The following week, we worked with the ground, the earth; where we are now, activities that they enjoy and where they find nourishment and support. Many of the young people talked about the support and stability given through attending school, their foster families, English lessons, attending GARAS or part-time work, their love of their friends and playing together in the park 

The next session gave young people a chance to think about some of their skills and values. Young people talked about the skills they had grown on their journeys; ’I learnt to cook in Calais’ said one person, “I am really caring’ said another. We talked about how these skills had developed. The young people shared openly the skills that they thought their fellow group members had too, ‘you are good at cricket’, ‘you make me laugh a lot’, they told each other and subsequently added it to their ever growing list. Young people shared that their values and sense of self had changed since their experience of leaving home and making long journeys, alone, far from everything and everyone they knew and loved. ‘I used to just play, that was how it was. Now I am more serious. I have seen too much for even an old man and I am only young but that is making me who I am and means that I will help others and always try to be kind. It gives me a strong faith’.  

The next week we concentrated on the branches, the ‘hopes and dreams, wishes for themselves and their lives’. I asked questions about the history of these hopes and how they may have come to be significant in in their lives. We thought about how some dreams had always been apparent and others emerged along the way. ‘I want to be an engineer’, ‘to be a good father and have children, like my father’, They called out. ’I want to help people like people here help me, to work for a charity perhaps’, ‘I want to get my asylum and travel, to tell people about my story so we can help more refugees’.

As the sessions grew, we came to the leaves. These represented significant people from now and/or the past, real or fictional. We shared about those special to us and for the young people, these were family and friends who had died or they no longer had contact with alongside new friends. foster families and carers and staff at GARAS. Some talked about how they continue to honour relationships with family despite not being able to be with them anymore. 

In the final part of this activity, we shared together the fruits – gifts that each young person had been given. Some remembered physical presents (e.g. from family member for Eid) others remembered acts of kindness, love and care that had been shared.  As we talked, the trunks appeared stronger,  branches grew longer, the leaves larger and the fruits more full. There was  laughter and hope. 

We sat with the wonderful trees in front of us, we spoke about how together we make a forest…a beautiful forest that can learn to weather the storms together. The young people talked about impending court cases for their asylum claims, school or college Exams, the struggles of living in supported housing without a family to take care of them. Together they created ways to support themselves and each others as they learn. day by day, to re-root, to sustain relationships to others, to work and to a soil a culture that provides familiarity and stability. We saw how the the problem is the problem not the person and how problem saturated stories are often the dominant ones which can obscure hope, dreams and choice. We learnt that life is multi storied and identity is a project which can be created and recreated with others.

Mark Twain said ‘Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life’. Since joining GARAS I have never worked a day…We hope as part of the 20th Refugee Week, and for every week, you will join us on this journey of celebrating ‘different pasts, shared futures’ (Refugee Week, 2018) so that each young person can be fully supported and nourished to grow and shine their radiance in the world…just as all young people fully deserve. 

Dr Lucy Arnsby-Wilson

UASC Clinical Psychologist GARAS

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From a VPR (Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement) Worker

Another day, another form to fill in. I am helping a Syrian lady apply for travel documents.

This is something she has been looking forward to. She could now travel to Europe and meet her family members after many years of separation.

We completed numerous forms together in the past to ensure smoother transition to the new life in the UK. However, this form is different. Applying for it means you have to submit your Syrian passport to the Home Office.

While I carefully remind her of this procedure, her eyes change to a recognizable look of sorrow, distance and pain. She looks at me silently, then looks at her passport, an immaculately clean blue booklet. A well kept diary of past family destinations, carefully protected through her journeys to safety, together with her most precious belongings.

I hold her hand gently and she starts weeping silently… This is yet another goodbye to her previous life.

For some people, passports are merely a formality, something not to forget to take on foreign travels. Some people associate them with anxious long queues, and an expensive stamp that will allow them to embark on a foreign travel. However, to others, passports can be much more. They provide a formal sense of belonging, a proof that the land they represent still exists somewhere and that you remain part of it.

Letting your passport go is a silent farewell to a hope that you will see your homeland and your loved ones soon.

The Syrian lady wipes her tears with dignity. After a deep sigh, she hands me over her passport and whispers: “Let’s do it, this is a new beginning…”.

Danijela

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