Deeds not words

This is an edited version of the speech I gave at the final event of my Welcome Blanket project, last night.

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This evening is the moment for me to say farewell to the blanket. I am handing it over to A Thousand for a Thousand, an amazing local community-based charity. I understand it will be used to welcome and comfort a refugee family who are struggling to find a new home here in Brighton.

The Welcome Blanket has been a large part of my life for the last 10 months. I want to say a couple of things about that experience.

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The blanket was made by many hands – everyone who contributed squares, everyone who donated money, everyone who sewed names, everyone who talked to their friends about it.

Thank you to all those people. It’s been a lovely experience. I’ve enjoyed seeing the variety of styles and bringing everything together. I’ve loved working with the fabric and taking care of each person’s contribution. I’ve made new friends.

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But it’s also been an unsettling experience. I’ve been reading and learning about the reality of migration in the UK, and thinking about the meaning of the words on the blanket, as I worked on them.

One thing that has become clear to me is that living in the UK as a migrant is often a conditional existence.

People make their lives in temporary spaces that can be snatched away by one ‘if’ after another. If they renew the visa, if they accept the asylum application, if they believe we are really married, if we can raise the money for the fees and so on.

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The verse on the blanket – which stands at the entrance to our city – is lovely. But I’ve noticed that the people who respond most positively to it are white people like me, who have indeed found that Brighton accepts us without asking us to justify ourselves.

Yet for many people in our community, there is a positive epidemic of asking, and the reality for them is nowhere near as welcoming as we may fondly believe it to be.

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Many people have said to me that this blanket should be hanging in Brighton Museum or somewhere like that. I understand the sentiment. But I think having produced this beautiful object is not the thing that needs to be remembered and marked.

What would be worth putting in the museum would be a story about how the people of Brighton took action – at this time of crisis – to live up to their image of themselves. It’s all very well having these fine words, but what matters is how we act.

The Welcome Blanket project is above all a call to action. Action is required from all of us to help bring these words to life.

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We ask not

For most of 2017, I have been working on my Brighton Welcome Blanket project, a large scale, collaborative piece, which incorporates the verse carved on one of the Patcham Pylons at the entrance to Brighton:

Hail Guest. We ask not what thou art
If friend, we greet thee, hand & heart
If stranger, such no longer be
If foe, our love shall conquer thee

This verse appeals to progressive white Brightonians, like me, because it encapsulates something we feel is distinctive and characteristic about our city – its openness and acceptance of diversity, its willingness to provide sanctuary to those who don’t belong in the places they come from.

As I worked on this blanket, I photographed each crocheted word, sharing my progress on Facebook in order to encourage other people to take part by contributing their own textile squares. The slowness of working by hand with yarn means that there is time to develop an intimate relationship with a piece of work. I tried to reflect on the significance of each word and phrase as I went along.

For instance, when I had finished the word hand, I posted this on the Facebook group:

In Sophie NL Besse’s show, Borderline, there is a scene in which a young refugee is told, after travelling across Europe to Calais, that because his fingerprints had been taken in Italy, he must return there. His response is to take a lighter and try to burn away his fingerprints. For others, stranded in camps and sleeping rough across Europe and beyond, a photo of their hand sent to the grassroots Facebook group Phone Credit For Refugees brings in return the precious gift of a chance to talk with loved ones or summon help in an emergency. But this word is simply about a greeting, human to human, hand to hand.

 

As I read and learned more about the situation of refugees and migrants in Europe and the UK specifically, I began to feel differently about the verse. Two thoughts have crystallised for me, as the blanket reaches its final stage.

1. ‘We ask not’ is the key phrase

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Not asking means starting from the basic assumption that all humans are equal, and equally worthy of respect. It is a risky stance – as explained in the verse. There’s always a chance that you are unknowingly welcoming a foe into your home. But it is the only way to maintain your own humanity.

To say in advance that you will extend a hand of friendship to every visitor, without first questioning their status or motives, means that you relinquish your power to pick and choose who may enter. It means you opt not to see people from outside as a resource to be exploited or as victims to be rescued.

On the other side of the coin, not being asked is an experience that many progressive white Brightonians like me take for granted. It feels great, to be accepted at your word. We want to celebrate that feeling and that freedom, and share it with everyone.

But unfortunately, it is a lie.

2. We ask all the time

The unpalatable truth is that the welcome we offer to people who turn up in Brighton, the UK or Europe is very far from the open acceptance suggested by the words on my blanket.

In reality, the experience of arriving in Europe or the UK is one of being asked repeatedly what your value is, and whether you can prove you meet the (arbitrary) standards we set for people to settle here.

We ask at the border, and we keep on asking. The UK’s hostile environment for “illegal” migrants is a system that is designed to bring the border into every aspect of day-to-day life.

We ask at hospital

From 23rd October 2017, hospitals and other providers of secondary health care will be legally obliged to ask people about their immigration status and to charge overseas visitors in advance for the treatment they need.

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We ask at school

Schools carry out a pupil census every term. Campaigners revealed last year that since December 2015, the Home Office has had an arrangement in place to regularly request access to the data gathered for immigration purposes.

In September 2016, new questions about nationality and country of birth were added to the Schools Census. The purpose of gathering this data is nothing to do with ensuring adequate funding for schools or support for pupils with additional language needs. It is directly related to the hostile environment programme, as Against Borders for Children explain:

In 2015 then-Home Secretary Theresa May outlined proposals to be included in the Immigration Bill that would bring schools under the government’s agenda to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. According to the BBC, those plans included schools withdrawing places offered to children of irregular migrant families and checking immigration status before accepting new pupils. After the then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressed ‘profound concerns’, they reached a compromise, and the DfE agreed instead to collect nationality, COB and and expanded language data through schools “to improve [the DfE’s] understanding of the scale and impact of pupil migration on the education sector.” The new data collection is explicitly linked to the government’s policy to create a hostile environment for migrants, and is part of an attempt to make schools a proxy for immigration enforcement.

We ask at the letting agency

Since February 2016, private landlords have been required to check the immigration status of all adults they are letting property to. Landlords must check up every year and report tenants to the Home Office if they find they no longer have the required documents

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Deeds not words

If you were not aware of this epidemic of asking, you are probably white, with a British-sounding name. Many of us will most likely never experience the impact of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but that doesn’t mean we can continue to assume we live in an accepting, welcoming country. We do not.

If we want to make our idea of ourselves a reality, we have to take action. Take a risk. Make a stand.

Here are some groups of people who are doing that. If you like the idea of the Welcome Blanket, you can help to make it less of a lie by joining and supporting them.

Thousand 4 1000

You can sponsor a square of the Welcome Blanket by making a donation to Thousand 4 1000, Brighton’s community response to enforced homelessness of forced migrants.

Prints and cards of the blanket are also on sale, with all profits going to Thousand 4 1000.

Docs not Cops

This campaign brings together healthcare providers and patients to resist the introduction of charging into the NHS. Download their toolkit and take action in your local area.

Against Borders for Children

Their September 2017 update has a list of clear actions you can take to disrupt the use of the school census to enforce immigration controls, whether you are a parent, teacher or anyone else.


Calais

So I went to Calais as part of the Critical Mass to Calais bike ride last weekend.

A week later, I am no closer to having anything coherent to say about it, but I thought I would put down some of the disjointed ideas it sparked anyway.

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As David Charles pointed out in his excellent piece about the bike ride, cycling is not the most efficient way to get bikes from London to Calais. But the process of travelling there under (to some extent) our own steam gave me plenty of time to think about what such journeys mean for people in different circumstances.

I spent some days thinking about what to take with me, trying to imagine what I would need and what would be unnecessary weight on my bike. Everyone planning a long journey must make decisions like this, especially if their journey is on foot or by bike.

It is quite a satisfying experience, to pack your bags well and efficiently, to know where to find the things you need along the way, to be pleased with what you have brought and what you have left behind. But I was haunted by the thought of people packing for a journey they could not imagine and could not prepare for. I thought about what that process would feel like if every decision brought with it a pang of sorrow.

Before I left, lots of people told me I was doing a great thing. My journey was admirable. I realised that for people like me, travel is always to be admired. Even if I had been heading off on a holiday, people would have been pleased with me, congratulated me on my spirit of adventure. Our culture celebrates exploration, exertion and discovery.

In Kent, our route incorporated paths and roads now marked as the Pilgrim’s Way, a reminder of an older tradition of journeys made for the sake of journeying, and in the hope of hospitality along the way.

But for the people we met in Calais, and those trapped in Greece and Hungary, hospitality and admiration have been much harder to find.

Refugees and migrants

Nearly all the people we saw at the camp in Calais were young men. 90% of those stuck there are men, though I did see a young child in the brief time I spent there.

When I say young men, I mean very young. I spoke with one young man who was probably no older than my daughter, about to set off on her own big adventure to university in a couple of weeks’ time. He told me he wanted to reach the UK, so that he could work and send money back to support his family in Sudan.

I think Paul Mason is right in this piece, when he says that the distinctions between people fleeing war and poverty are increasingly meaningless.

Why is getting on your bike to find work the right thing to do if you are unemployed in the north of England, but the wrong thing if you are in Sudan? (clue: racism)

Charity and solidarity

The spontaneous mass movement of people all across Europe wanting to welcome refugees and share their belongings, and even homes, with them has been astonishing.

Just as the political institutions of Europe are being swept away by the sheer numbers of people arriving, so the power of the media to determine public opinion is being undermined by the swifter and deeper communication of Facebook.

As this excellent piece by Plan C describes, there is not a clear distinction between charity on one hand and political pressure on the other. David Cameron has been forced to shift his position in just a couple of days. All four Labour leadership candidates declared themselves in support of offering sanctuary to more refugees in the Sky News debate on Thursday, in terms that would have been unutterable by most Labour candidates before the election.

Human structures

The camp at Calais is hardly built at all. All the buildings are made of wood and tarpaulin, those that are not simply tents. There is a tap, but no sanitation to speak of. When it rained on Sunday night (after I had left), many structures were simply washed away.

And yet, there are systems. There are roads. There is a shop and a cafe. There is a church, a mosque, a library and a school. There are neighbourhoods, marked with signs showing the countries where people have come from – Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia. People make society, whatever their circumstances.

I didn’t take any photos on my trip. Here is a photo album taken on the same day by Natasha Quarmby, who was careful not to compromise anyone’s immigration claim or exploit their plight for sentimental or campaigning purposes.

I’m glad I went. I wish I had stayed longer in the camp (as it turned out, my ferry didn’t leave for another six hours, so I could have done). I hope we can keep up the pressure on the governments of Europe long enough to make a real change for everyone who needs a safe haven here.