By Didier Ibwilakwingi-Ekom
Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and attending a boarding school in the depths of the country from the age of 12, as a young person I never came across the terms ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’, or ‘displaced person’. Even though I had friends who’d come from Angola and had settled in Kinshasa, my country’s capital, these words never entered my vocabulary.
I don’t think my unfamiliarity with these terms was a result of ignorance. Instead, I think it’s because we in DRC gave everyone a warm welcome. Regardless of their background, we treated all people with dignity. As such, we didn’t think of people as ‘foreigners’, because that term is generally only used to describe those representing a threat to one’s culture or way of living. We didn’t even use this word to describe missionaries from Europe or America – they were respectfully known as fathers or pastors.
At university, I had many friends from Rwanda or Burundi, yet they were never treated differently from the students who came from DRC itself. Thanks to the country’s failed administrative system – which could not track the backgrounds of the country’s populace – some even benefited from scholarships established specifically for DR Congolese; gained employment; or assumed political positions within the DR Congolese government.
It wasn’t until the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, followed by the genocide in Rwanda, which saw millions of people die and become displaced, that I began to understand that not everyone felt the same as me. I realised that many people viewed difference as something dangerous; they felt that people who had a slightly different background, religion, or ethnicity to themselves were somehow a threat and therefore should be suspected, punished, marginalised and quashed.
Seeing these appalling events reiterated to me the importance of being a citizen of the world, of being a cosmopolitan, being someone who shares universal values of justice, equality, and, above all, human dignity. Later, when I arrived in the UK – dreaming of a better life, and pleased to be reunited with my wife, who had been granted refugee status here – it was these values that framed my decision to serve the Congolese community in my new country. I knew that this community was experiencing problems integrating into the UK and I realised that I could help make it a better place to live in.
However, I also understood that if I wanted to help others, first I had to empower myself. I therefore completed a master’s degree in international Relations, funded by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA), before deciding to progress to a PhD programme, which I am currently completing.
During this difficult period, I came to understand the many challenges facing the DR Congolese community in the UK, as well as other people who come here as migrants. These challenges included taking up the basic entitlements for which asylum seekers are eligible, to accessing education, health services, and housing benefits. It also included more complex legal problems. I discovered that the appalling and shocking reality is that these migrants had to go through a prolonged, complicated and dehumanising process simply to secure the minimum services to which they were legally entitled.
When thinking about how to address these challenges, I realised that fixing them would mean taking big steps: after all, a chasm can never be crossed in two small jumps. Now, as a leader working to support community members to develop the skills and the knowledge necessary to fight for their rights, I am embodying this approach. I’m continually working outside my comfort zone to challenge the system and fight for more justice, more equality, and more dignity.
Recently assuming a new role at Migrants Organise, as a Neighbourhood Organiser in North Kensington, I’m pushing this approach still further. In the aftermath of the fire at Grenfell Tower, which is located just minutes away from our office, I’m supporting organisations and community leaders to come together, develop a power base, and facilitate the changes that the local community needs. Nine months after the tragedy, those affected by the fire are still facing a range of issues; in particular, some former residents are still to be offered new homes.
The fact that these issues remain demonstrates that something is wrong in Kensington and Chelsea. This needs to be fixed. The borough is one of the richest in the entire country yet it is also home to some of the most deprived areas in England. It is highly divided: wealth in South Kensington sits side-by-side with poverty in North Kensington. The fire at Grenfell Tower tragedy is one of the consequences of this divide.
My colleagues and I at Migrants Organise are dedicated to bridging this gap. I have already seen committed, passionate and hard-working people and organisations coming together to respond to the immediate needs of victims. This is already a big achievement.
However, the changes needed will not happen overnight; change will only be what we make of it. That is why we will focus on supporting and empowering community leaders and organisations to act relationally, develop and apply the tools that will enable them to unite, and identify practical means to take action on their common issues and struggles. Organising and building common ground and speaking out about what’s at stake are those initial jumps forward that will catalyse the change that we so urgently need.
I am fully determined to be one of the pieces of the puzzle that will make North Kensington an accountable, safe, and just place for its people. I hope you’ll join me, and Migrants Organise, in making this happen.
Didier Ibwilakwingi-Ekom works as a Migrants Organise Community Organiser in North Kensington. He supports migrants and refugees in the area to take a lead role in campaigning and decision-making on key issues affecting the local community. This includes facilitating community-led campaigns and supporting migrants and refugees in registering to vote or run as candidates in local elections. To contact Didier, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org