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From Batley we walked to Leeds through rural woodland and industrial suburbs. In Moor End we saw the distinctive ‘back-to-back’ terraces, high density housing built for mill-workers. There were no gardens and washing was strung across streets from house to house in a timeless scene. Today such housing is often used for refugee resettlement. We heard from one woman who felt her son was embarrassed to bring his friends from school home to their accommodation, and were told of another man who was excited to leave his back-to-back for a house with a tiny garden which he promptly began to cultivate, the growth of seeds being an important gesture symbolising hope and belonging.
This story was told to me at a community cafe in Harehills, another suburb of back-to-backs with a large proportion of resettled refugees. I was giving the staff some sunflower seeds to grow there, a custom we have followed throughout our journey wherever we have been offered food or shelter.
We noted the enormous Victorian church built for the mill workers and now in decline, and we noted the equally large, recently built Mosque now serving the Muslim community. We later interviewed a Muslim refugee from Saudi Arabia who spoke of the difficulty finding a Mosque to worship in, each one catering for a particular ethnic community or culture. She had found a community of Christians with whom she made friends while retaining her own distinct beliefs.
At the Leeds City of Sanctuary offices we met and interviewed Nawal. Herself a refugee, she had volunteered to help others and was only recently granted refugee status and therefore able to work full time as their website support officer. She was inspirational and shared some powerful personal stories as well as detailing the huge variety of support work happening in Leeds and elsewhere. She was kind enough to complement us on our walk and blog, she felt inspired she said that we were willing to leave our homes and journey without knowing what we would learn or where we would go. She saw the parallels with her own uncertain journey. She also told an anecdote of being helped up Ben Nevis by a ‘grumpy Yorkshireman’ and leaning on a staff and her own resilience to achieve something she had never dreamed of. It was a richly symbolic real life example of the power of the human spirit.
We then met Rose and Shelley who were the coordinators of the Maternity Stream of Sanctuary, a group set up to support refugee and asylum seeker mothers. We sat with mothers from Albania and Zimbabwe and Congo as well as local midwives and child psychotherapists. One woman was setting up a hair-dressing and conversation community, another had been translating for lawyers unpaid, she had been awaiting refugee status for eight years. We heard about plans for refugee week and their own Great Get Together with sinning from the Azmarina Choir, a choir of women singers from many different cultures. Nawal had previously spoken about the group and its power to bring women together and offer something fun for them to do while their children were being cared for by a play-leader paid for with charity funding.
Azmarina means ‘unite’ in Eritrean and the group was set up following the production of the play ‘Refugee Boy’ at The West Yorkshire Playhouse. We visited the playhouse and heard how, following that production, they were determined to keep doing something useful for refugees and asylum seekers. They became one of the first ‘Theatres of Sanctuary’. We interviewed Ruth Hannant who told us how they researched all the work that was being done in the area and saw that while much was being done to assist with legal matters, administration, housing etc what was missing was a place and an organisation that could provide fun.
We interviewed Shreena who runs a group called ‘Hearts’ bringing young people together each week to play games and be creative. She told us how she felt excited to come to work each day knowing what a difference the Theatre of Sanctuary made to the lives of so many people who had been on such challenging journeys. Shreena’s mother had moved from Uganda to England to escape Idi Amin’s persecution of Asians, her father is from Watford. Shreena’s enthusiasm and passion for her work was reflected in the cheerful and bustling surroundings of the space where she worked as the doors kept on opening to admit cheerful young people from all over the world.
We met and interviewed Olivier from Refugee Education and Training Advice Service, a refugee from Congo who had progressed through volunteering and higher education to become an inspirational advocate for recent arrivals. He spends time with refugee youth and also in British Schools educating people about the journeys refugees make and inspiring young people who might otherwise be complacent about their relative privileges. He spoke kindly about our blog and understood that a pilgrim relying on the hospitality of strangers has something in common with the refugee. He was also interested to read the piece about Tom Scott-Smith and the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford. Olivier is keen to pursue his studies further with a Masters in this field.
The ‘hearts’ group consisted of young men as unaccompanied asylum seekers are not often female. We told them about our journey and Olivier asked them what was the furthest they had walked. A young Kurdish man spoke about walking for several days out of his country, he spoke cheerfully and said he loved walking and would walk all over the world. When Olivier asked if anyone had been given hospitality by strangers the same boy spoke about a young woman from Amsterdam who had met him in the Calais Jungle and had invited him to her home for a weekend as her guest. We then spent some time making welcome signs in different languages and drawing pictures together in an atmosphere of happy and peaceful concentration.
That evening we were given free tickets to a show at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. They provide free tickets to any asylum seeker or refugee, it had previously been Nawal’s job to encourage people to take up this offer and we heard how friendly the front of house staff were, because of their training and experience they were often more patient, understanding and friendly to people from other countries than the members of the public.
The play we saw was ‘Lifeboat’ by Nicola McCartney, a true story of two young evacuees from England who survived when their transport ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic during World War Two. They were among 11 survivors out of 90 children. We were moved by scenes describing a train station crowded with children with labels and suitcases, parents weeping as they said goodbye. This country has had its own refugees from conflict, its own terrible losses. Plays like this are essential in helping us remember as those generations pass away.
The next day at the community cafe Toast, Love Coffee I sat in on a men’s group run by the Theatre of Sanctuary. We shared folk stories from different cultures and commented on their shared wisdom. I showed my map and spoke of my journey and two men from Ghana were particularly moved and inspired by the idea of a long walk. As we clock up more miles even the reserved British folk are registering surprise, but Fabrice was more openly amazed and admiring than anyone we have met so far.
Isabel went home to prepare for her father’s funeral and I walked alone over Ilkely Moor, the most spectacular views and scenery of the journey to date. In Skipton I joined an interfaith group in Christ Church and ate lunch prepared and served by one of the Syrians relocated there and her friend a local Arabic interpreter.
There was a speech after lunch by Judy, the community officer with People and The Dales. She spoke about bringing groups of disadvantaged people into the countryside for walks or conservation work or even lambing. She shared stories of challenges and success and it was clear that the work she did provided therapeutic elements as well as community engagement and a connection with land and traditional ways of life. It was clear that there is an argument for relocating refugees to small towns like Skipton where they are able to integrate more easily with locals than they might if they were in a big city and tempted to mix only with people of their own nationality. She organised weekends when refugees and their families could stay in remote villages with volunteer families. One woman said this was the only holiday she could provide for her children. Enduring friendships have been formed, with refugees sometimes insisting they return the favour and inviting their former hosts to be their own guests in the cities where they live.
People in the Dales is a secular organisation, though Judy is herself a Christian. It was striking to see an interfaith network and a secular group sharing resources and ideas in this way. Judy has offered to accommodate us for a night on the next stage of our journey and we are keen to foster new projects together and create links between her organisation and others with similar intent.
Here you can listen to the audio from the above on crowdcaster :