by Jessica Kennedy, National Organiser
Refugee Week is meant to be a celebration. A celebration of the great contribution that refugees make to the UK and to our communities.
Particularly this week, when our theme is welcome, it is a celebration of the open hearts and open minds with which local people have greeted new arrivals fleeing violence, fear, persecution and war; and the efforts to which British people have gone to ensure that refugees are welcome here.
Yet, today, at the start of Refugee Week we have tears in our eyes and heavy hearts.
The murder – some have said political assassination – of Jo Cox MP , as she hosted her regular surgery in her constituency, left us all reeling. By everyone’s account Jo was a very special women who fought for her constituents and for people all around the world who are experiencing poverty, violence, discrimination and marginalisation. Her loss is terrible. It is also a threat to our democracy and the access that we have to the people who represent us in parliament.
We do not know the reasons that Tommy Mair picked up a knife and a gun – there could be no political motivation. But, as I was reading the tributes to Jo’s incredible and tireless work for the causes she believed in, the respect she had from colleagues across the political spectrum and the joy she inspired in others, Alex Massie’s article in The Spectator leapt out at me. At Migrants Organise we have watched in horror over the years, and particularly in this EU Referendum debate, as politicians have whipped up hate. We know, from our own personal experiences that a culture of fear, racism and xenophobia can lead to terrible things.
So, as Alex writes,
“…no, Nigel Farage isn’t responsible for Jo Cox’s murder. And nor is the Leave campaign. But they are responsible for the manner in which they have pressed their argument. They weren’t to know something like this was going to happen, of course, and they will be just as shocked and horrified by it as anyone else.’
But, still. Look. When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’
When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.”
I am sad to say that his final words resonate strongly: “I cannot recall ever feeling worse about this country and its politics than is the case right now.”
Our hearts are also heavy at the ongoing global tragedy on which Britain increasingly seems to be turning its back. In one week at the end of May, more than one thousand people died in the Mediterranean trying to find safety in Europe. Hundreds of children, who have the right to asylum in the UK, are on their own in camps in Calais and Dunkirk. Just yesterday, the UN recognised the systematic violence against Yazidi people by Daesh to be genocide. In 2017 there will be more than 1.19 million people in need of resettlement. What are we doing as a country to help?
Every time I think about Jo Cox, I remember the context in which I knew her: as a fearless advocate for refugees, particularly those from Syria and particularly children.
This week, Migrants Organise was meant to be celebrating.
We used to joke that, for us, every week is Refugee Week. Every week we meet incredible survivors who are rebuilding their lives and using their talents in our communities to make our country a better place.
In the week of 20 June 2016, we had two more things to celebrate.
For 10 months local residents have been working tirelessly, volunteering their time to a RBKC Refugees Welcome Committee to ensure that RBKC council is able to take part in the governments’ Syrian Resettlement Scheme. A local couple have agreed to rent out their flat at the Local Housing Allowance rate – and so, a family is on its way from a refugee camp to build a new life here with us in London. Our office is busy with volunteers coordinating local parents to drop off donations of pots, pans, furniture and baby toys. Refugees and asylum seekers already in the borough are preparing welcome activities, and assembling furniture for the flat. School children are writing welcome letters and fundraising for extra support. Council social workers are planning how to support the family to integrate. Our staff members are training mentors and volunteers to provide help and a friendly face; other local charities are preparing their staff to work with the family. The enthusiasm and commitment from every section of the local community never fails to inspire us.
We were also planning to celebrate the launch of our National Migrant Organising programme. For too long, our members have felt powerless in the face of hostility and xenophobia. Over the next four years our focus will be supporting incredible people working at the grassroots to build a national migrant movement that is powerful enough to change the political conversation in this country. All around the UK, we will work intensely with migrant and refugee community leaders and members to grow their power, to build common ground with others, to connect across areas and struggles, and to speak out about the injustices they and their communities face.
For Migrants Organise, this is our chance to fight back forever against hatred, racism, xenophobia and a desire to create hostile environment for anyone who looks different – or is defending their rights. This is our chance to build a world where migrants and refugees are celebrated and recognised for their contribution; where we can have a conversation about migration based on common sense and compassion. This is our chance to win the argument that migration is a fact of life, and that rather than fearing it, we need to organise it.
Instead of celebrating, we are mourning the loss of a wonderful woman who used her platform to argue for a response to the global refugee crisis based on understanding and compassion.
We are mourning, and this week – as every week – Migrants Organise’s office is full of people who are fleeing persecution, fear, violence, poverty and war, and, isolated by the hostility they feel around them, by their traumatic histories or by experiences of immigration detention, are trying to battle a system that denies them a driver’s license or much needed mental health support. In our daily interactions we remember that if there is one thing that refugees are, that we are, it is survivors. Refugees are resilient.
Like the two young men who arrived in our office last week, having fled persecution and violence – they walked across a desert, survived traffickers and drowning in the Mediterranean and are now, with barely any English, trying to find out how they can build a life in London.
Like the father who came to us, having fled war and death in Syria – he carried his two young daughters in his arms into Europe to find desperately needed medical care, and is now helping other survivors of the conflict to find work and establish a home in the UK.
Like the two women we recently recognised on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall at the annual Women on the Move Awards. we run with UNHCR. Mariam, fled war, persecution and gender-based violence in Somali and is now dedicating her time to championing the rights of women who have experience domestic violence and FGM. Seada fled Eritrea aged 16, finding her way to the UK on the back of a truck on her own, and is now – whilst training to be a doctor – a mentor to many young people with similar experiences, working to ensure that their voices are heard in the places where decisions are made about their lives.
And so, we will be resilient.
Migrants Organise will continue to believe in a better world. We will hold true to our vision of the kind of country that Jo Cox herself worked for and described in her maiden speech in parliament:
‘Batley and Spen is a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense and proud Yorkshire towns and villages. Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
“It is a joy to represent such a diverse community.’
Next week, on the day of the referendum, I will be in West Yorkshire, meeting inspiring community members who take action against injustice and intolerance every day. I want my memory of that trip not to be the hatred that murdered a hardworking mum, but to be the hope that together we can to build a movement to challenge that hatred.
Those of us who believe in this vision of a better country, those of us who are sickened by this act of violence and this political climate of hatred, have two tasks to do now.
The first is to turn up to vote in the EU Referendum and bring everyone else you know to the polls. Whether we agree with each others’ vote or not, we must engage and we must discuss these issues with common sense, compassion and dignity. At Migrants Organise we are offering help to those who might not have voted before and are supporting communities to turn out their members.
The second is to organise and to realise, in Jo’s words, that we are “far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. Join us on this journey or play your role in the movement that builds the power of migrants and refugees to address the issues that affect them and celebrates their contribution. We need to make sure that every week is refugee week. From our different pasts, we can build a shared future.
Jo’s husband Brendan Cox, who himself has campaigned for years on these issues, leaves us with a challenge. In his statement he said,
“Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.
“She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisionous”.