This month I turn 21! In my British years, that is. I made a journey from broken hearted, disillusioned refugee journalist from war-torn Sarajevo in 1993 to passionate advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants and 2014 Churchill Fellow.
According to the latest research by British Future, I, as a naturalized Brit, here for more than 15 years, am also that mythical creature, who according to their polling is trusted by the British public more than any politician of any political party.
I was lucky to survive the worst war and destruction Europe has seen since the WW2. I was lucky to find refuge in Britain, amongst people, who despite often harsh policies and negativity around the issue, welcomed me into their lives and families and helped me not only to survive, but also to thrive. I worked hard to educate myself, to work and to contribute to my new country. That does not mean I love Sarajevo or Bosnia less, it just means I belong here now and I want to see London and Britain be the best it can be.
In our approach to refugees and migrants as well as in the way we conduct the immigration debate, for many years now we have not been at our best. It was painful to see the introduction of the Azure card for asylum seekers, while they were prevented from working or studying. I felt angry, guilty and powerless and it was even more painful for those who have to endure it. Despite the passage of time, this is still very personal – it was happening on my watch and if I were to arrive now, my life would be on hold, in administrative destitution or even worse – indefinite detention. With many of my colleagues I feel overwhelmed by negativity and the inhumanity of it all. I felt we needed to do not only more but something different, something positive. We also needed to tell a different, more positive story.
In 2012 we set up Woman on the Move Awards to recognise and celebrate inspirational migrant and refugee women who make contribution to their communities. It worked! I am proud of our amazing winners: superwomen who even Nigel Farage would want to have as his neighbours!
But we have not been able to overturn the tide of negativity partly whipped up by the tabloid press peddling myths of a scary immigrants and partly based on real concerns that people experience in their daily lives of which visible immigrants are increasingly both symbol and consequence. So I looked for success story somewhere else.
While we are trapped in a vicious circle of circular debate on numbers and entitlements, our special relations in the US were doing something very interesting. Don’t get me wrong, there were some exciting developments over here, namely the work we did with Citizens UK on the Independent Asylum Commission and on the campaign to end detention of children for immigration purposes. But,the US DREAMERS were making progress I had not yet seen anywhere else. It was HOPE and CHANGE all over the place! And for real!
I was lucky again as I won a scholarship to travel to the US for two months this summer to learn more about how they did it. I was able to do this due to generosity of The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which funds British citizens, (like me) to travel abroad and learn about best practice in the area of their personal interest and bring it back for the benefit of others, their profession and community in the UK. This just one of those things that makes Britain great!
I covered 15,000 miles last summer from London to Alabama, Atlanta, Illinois, Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts and Washington State. I met more than 200 people organising for immigrants’ rights and achieving the impossible: Chicago police refusing to implement Federal orders to hold people on immigration charges. Massachusetts’ gubernatorial candidates all agreeing that undocumented migrants should have access to drivers licenses and the city of Seattle tolerating labor exchange of undocumented immigrants and funding safety at work training for them.
Wherever I went I learned something inspiring and felt empowered and encouraged that positive change is possible. These are just a few examples of things I have learned. In this series of blogs I will be sharing my learning from the movement that is about to achieve major change. I also learned that America is not the promised land and there are some real problems. This administration has deported huge number of immigrants, and split many families. But this has just increased the resolve of immigrant campaigners to work harder and they are about to reap the benefits of their hard work. President Obama will announce today that an estimated 11 million of undocumented immigrants are about to become documented in some way. And I wanted to learn how did they get there.
I have asked all my new friends all over the US, if they had a magic wand, what is the one thing they would wish for and every single one of them, from large national coalitions to small local community groups told me: immigration reform. When I asked them if they think they will get it – they all, without an expectation told me that it is just a question of time. I was impressed by their confidence, but having seen how they work, I too had no doubt they will succeed. And it is the ‘how’ that is the most impressive.
There were in the past attempts to deliver immigration reform in the US, but it only started happening when immigrants organised. Firstly young people made the progress for themselves, and now they are fighting for their families. It is hard to put into words the power of organised people, mobilising and registering new voters, drafting their own legislation and using their democratic powers for better society. They will get their executive order because the Latino vote is no longer a sleeping giant.
We have a long way to go in Britain. The Forum has for many years been a proud member of Citizens UK a broad based community organising alliance. We are working together with schools, churches, mosques, synagogues and charities to make Britain a fair, just and better country. We are spearheading Citizens UK Sanctuary campaign to ensure the end of indefinite detention, welcome more Syrians in the UK and reduce the income threshold required from those who fall in love with foreigners.
The Forum has in the past year made progress in bringing organising to migrant and refugee communities. We are working hard to ensure new citizens register to vote and have a say in our democracy.
On Saturday 15th November we tasted the flavor of organising and movement building with our colleagues who work in the refugee and migrant world. Over the last year we worked with colleagues from around the country to organise the first Sanctuary Summit in Birmingham, attended by more than 400 people from more than 100 organisations.
I am very excited to have been involved in drafting the set of principles and asks we now call The Birmingham Declaration, which has already been signed by more than thirty organisations. This is the first time we as refugees, migrants and advocates made a proactive step for positive change. Yes, we have a long way to go to see fairer and more humane immigration policy and debate, but last Saturday in Birmingham we made that first step towards a better, organised, fairer future. I am asking you to take the Declaration to your church, school, union, community, ask them to sign it and take the stand for positive change together.