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.
To apply as a volunteer contact: firstname.lastname@example.org