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Image: After the Jungle burnt…

27/01/2017
Danny Sweeney, the Social Justice Coordinator for J&P Scotland reflects on his experiences in the Calais refugee camp



All jobs come with unexpected days -  however there was nothing in the 2 ½ years I had worked in the Civil Service which prepared me for the first week of November 2016 when I was sent to Calais to see the last days of the “jungle”. 


Most of the camp’s residents had been cleared, but there remained between 1500 and 1700 unaccompanied children and young families. Following an agreement between the UK and French governments these people would be taken to reception centres and considered for travel to the UK. The purpose of sending us was to show the presence of the British government, to reassure those being transported that this was not a trick by the French authorities, and that they’d not been forgotten. 


It felt strange to be going to a place which I had heard and read so much about. The graffiti on bridges calling for access to the UK, or freedom to travel remained, but the rest of the camp was gone.


All that remained was debris, and the Eritrean church. This became a sanctuary on the Tuesday evening when tensions between the Eritrean, and Afghan communities had erupted. It too was bulldozed as we watched on Thursday morning.


Part of me knew how unsuitable the camp at Calais had become Residents were vulnerable to attack, the weather was so often bad, the local people and police had become increasingly hostile local, and then there were the “agents” - people smugglers who exploited their desperation  with promises of a passage to the UK. 


But while I was there, I witnessed both love and tears. There was the love of volunteers who had put themselves at the service of the refugees, offering language classes, legal assistance, and the support that the state refused. I was moved by the tearful goodbyes between volunteers and migrants. 


This was a real community of people broken up over those few days. And it is people’s stories that stay with me. 


Wais, a young Afghan asylum seeker travelling with his wife, and Abeel, their 2½-year-old son, spoke about his life back home,  the disappearance of his mother, and kidnap of his sister many years ago. Then there were the events that had led him to leave Afghanistan with a new-born child. He also told me how he’d spoken with his mother. She was a refugee who had been safe in the UK for the last seven years. She had long believed him to be dead. They had not met because she was unable to afford to travel to France, but Wais was hoping to be reunited with her soon.


I also talked with Jamal, at 14-years-old, the eldest of six children travelling with their mother.  His youngest sister was just five weeks old, born in the camp. He spoke about their lives, his hope to see his father in the UK – and wanting to visit Manchester to see Man United play. 


I travelled back trying to reflect on what I’d seen. I believe it was a lack of compassion and humanity that led to the growth of the camp at Calais. Whatever our country’s legal obligations, seeing people living in misery, and throwing themselves under the wheels of trains and lorries in attempts to reach safety seems to have been drowned out by hate-mongering headlines and the resurgent far-right. Even those few we do welcome are subjected to the ignorance of the media, and sycophantic politicians making baseless demands for dental examinations to “prove their age”. 


My new role with Justice and Peace Scotland promises to be a busy and varied one. But I hope that journey, a week after I had learnt of my success in being appointed, will stay with me here in Scotland. 


You must treat the outsider as one of your native-born people - as a full citizen - and you are to love him in the same way you love yourself; for remember, you were once strangers living in Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34


(Danny is Social Justice Co-ordinator for Justice and Peace Scotland. Originally from Stockport, he is a lay volunteer with the Salesian of Don Bosco.)
 



Image: I was a stranger and you welcomed me

20/01/2017
In our blog, Alison Clark, Bute resident and former teacher, offers a personal view on the settlement of refugees

 

As I write, it’s exactly a year since our new Syrian residents arrived here on the Isle of Bute. The families celebrated the anniversary by cooking a fabulous lunch for everyone who has been involved in helping them settle, both statutory agencies and volunteers.  



The first 10 families were followed in February by 5 more and recently some relatives have been able to join their families under the reunification programme.   


I’m one of the volunteers who have sought to support our new residents.  It’s been a fascinating and at times challenging experience.  There was a huge response to Argyll & Bute Council’s appeal for volunteers.  We were asked to staff a pop-up community centre where the families could meet each other and be contacted by the various supporting agencies.  St Andrews RC church here in Rothesay offered the use of their hall. This proved invaluable as a meeting place and for the distribution of the generous donations which flooded in.   


The experience has been and continues to be a big learning curve for the statutory agencies and for the volunteers.  Intent on preparing as best we could by learning about the culture of the Syrians, we quickly realised - what is obvious when you think about it -  that our new arrivals did not constitute a homogeneous group. Encouraged not to offer a handshake to the men for example, we found that some cheerfully offered their hand.  On matters religious, some are more secular, some more observing.  


A few arrived with good English, some with a little, most with none at all.  What a challenge when you need to learn even the alphabet!   I found it hard to see someone who had run a business in his own country struggling to write his name in an unfamiliar alphabet and working across the page from left to right.  

   
We could only surmise what horrors they might have experienced.  Some have spoken about it, some not.  What we can know both from the news and from their own accounts is that they live with constant worry about the fate of those left behind.  But there is good news too.  Already four babies have been born to the families, a wonderful sign of new life.   One father proudly declared that his baby daughter was a Scottish Syrian.  


Most are settling remarkably well, one or two in employment, some in training and some volunteering for community projects.  Some families, inevitably, have struggled.   So too have the volunteers at times!  On an island such as ours, there isn’t an existing refugee support organisation so our volunteers are gathered from scratch without the framework of an existing agency.  


Communication is an ongoing challenge, even with improving language skills.   After the drop-in centre closed, some of us have continued working with the families, particularly in the area of language support and befriending.  Currently a new cohort of volunteers is being trained.  


The local community has been welcoming on the whole but there have been some instances of hostility.  It is easy to criticise those we may be tempted to label as racist or xenophobic.  What this experience has taught me is that so-called ‘liberal’ attitudes and indeed a Christian theology of inclusiveness should not preclude an honest acknowledgement of the challenges that being ‘inclusive’ brings.  If we are not able to say ‘this is difficult’ or ‘I don’t agree with such and such a cultural practice’, then either we retreat from debate or we speak in bland terms that slide over the real challenges of cultural diversity.  
 



Image: Inspirational Music

13/01/2017
In our blog, teacher, lecturer and musician Dr. Frank O'Hagan gives a personal view on the use of music to inspire work for social justice.

 

Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant (Henry David Thoreau).

 


For over fifty years I have held the view that music has the potential to deepen knowledge and understanding of social justice.

On my first CD, A Long Way from Home (2005) there is a range of materials drawn from my work and experience in the field of using music to enhance the learning experience of pupils. From my research and practice I found that themes such as the Civil Rights movement in America can be brought alive through the medium of music. 

Many pupils find melody, rhythm and lyrics just the sort of mix to provide them with a gateway to understanding such topics more fully and deeply. Both students and teachers have told me that songs related to issues studied in class have enhanced the learning experience for pupils. 

Songs from that CD include A Long Way from Home about the experience of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in their new home of Glasgow. A song called Leave This City Behind addresses the issues of vandalism, graffiti, and violence. It has been used by schools studying the novel Divided City in conjunction with local art projects to discourage anti-social behaviour.

I have songs about past and present activists, such as Rosa Parks whose actions  led to a turning point in American civil rights : Montgomery, Alabama (1955)  - see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKRbBWuPpxQ. This song has been used by a number of teachers during human rights week when pupils were involved in making posters, and creating drama activities, silent protests, music and debating. The School of Education in the University of Glasgow and in a number of primary and secondary schools throughout Scotland have also used  this song as have Howard University in Washington, D.C. in its Black History course.

Image result for montgomery bus boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted after being arrested for boycotting


In order to inform and develop attitudes about Myanmar activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the political situation in Burma, I used my composition The Jasmine Lady from the album Green Light To Freedom:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saHUGROCSyU

And What did we ever learn from History?  - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z49ZIjzgY7Q  -  is a song concerned with a range of issues, such as women’s right to vote and racism. It asks what have we learned from groups like the suffragettes and people like Martin Luther King. 

I have found that the medium of music acts as a powerful stimulus to social conscience in students, as well as deeper understanding of the issues and the development of attitudes and values. 

I have observed from the enthusiastic reaction of pupils that when I have the confidence to share the products of my own musical creativity, this motivates them to be more confident in their own creativity. They are enabled to share their poetry, lyrics, compositions, artwork and other examples of creativeness with me and their peers. 

To promote independent learning and self-directed study, I have given responsibility for the learning to individuals and it was their remit to create a series of visuals to accompany the songs. The result was most encouraging and facilitated discussion and debate around concepts such as freedom, democracy and human rights. The pupils said they enjoyed and benefitted from having ownership of the topic and that their intrinsic motivation was inextricably linked to the extrinsic motivation provided by the finished product and the peer assessment of that product. 


I am sure that music has the potential to deepen knowledge and understanding of a variety of topics, as well developing attitudes related to social justice in an engaging, imaginative and intrinsically motivating way.




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