by Akram Salhab
Growing up Palestinian, the experience of refugees has always been central to my life. My own family were forced from their homes in 1948 and lived briefly in one of the refugee camps set up around Jerusalem. Like most Palestinian refugees, our family have never been allowed to return to their original home, reclaim their property or enjoy any of their rights under international law.
Despite my family’s experience, my own sense of what it means to be a refugee is primarily collective rather than individual. Few national groups know as much about the trials of refugee life as Palestinians, and until the recent refugee crisis, Palestinians constituted the largest group of refugees in the world. Expulsion and war have been the prevailing features of life for a people of whom 70% have been displaced from their homes by Israel at some stage over the past decades.
After being expelled from Palestine in 1948, most Palestinian refugees were herded into UN camps in which millions still live today. Life in these dilapidated camps was characterised by misery, impoverishment and amongst the highest rates of malnutrition and infant mortality in the world. Those who have visited the Jungle camp in Calais, or the sites of mass refugee imprisonment in Greece and southern Europe, can well imagine the situation in which Palestinians found themselves in the mid-20th century.
The story of how Palestinians emerged from this predicament – transforming themselves from dispossessed refugees into dynamic political organisers – inspires and guides my work with refugees.
Growing up in Palestine, I was surrounded by this older generation of organisers. They spoke to me about their experiences and the friends and comrades with whom they struggled for freedom. From these testimonies I learnt about the virtues required for political organising: a dedication to principles and their practical application, optimism despite the circumstances and a certain confidence and solidity that comes from a sustained commitment to working for justice.
I moved to London in 2015, the same week that Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on the Turkish shores. I was asked by a friend to interpret for three Sudanese boys who had just arrived from Calais, and the lawyers I met that evening called me back often to ask for my support. My careful plans for the year soon changed as I threw myself into volunteering as an interpreter for the Safe Passage campaign, then in its infancy. The struggle for refugee rights in the UK was becoming one of the biggest moral issues of our time, and I felt I had a valuable contribution to make.
I went twice to the Jungle in Calais, and interpreted over the phone for many of the young boys struggling to be reunited with their families in the UK. Nothing has highlighted the injustice of our current immigration system, its sheer inhumanity, than speaking over the phone to a desperate young person whose family were only a short, one hour train ride away.
Yet these vulnerable boys were left to sit in the mud and freezing cold of northern France, completely unnecessarily. The indifference of the UK Government and the collusion of French authorities and private security firms (who would steal the shoes of young people trying to cross the border) revealed to me the callousness with which migrants and refugees arriving in the UK are treated.
Since joining Migrants Organise, I have been privileged to meet with many organisers and volunteers who see things similarly. In the Refugees Welcome movement, where my work is focused, I have met people from all walks of life who have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to improving the lives of refugees and to transforming the country in which we live. The struggles of migrant and refugee communities, with the support of wider society, has already achieved an unprecedented success in the Government’s commitment to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK and to introduce Community Sponsorship scheme based on the Canadian model.
The efforts to turn this commitment into a reality continues and I hope you will join me and Migrants Organise in building an organised welcome movement.
Akram is the Refugee Welcome Coordinator for Migrants Organise. To get involved in Refugee Welcome, get in touch with Akram: email@example.com