“Stop being afraid and get up and act. We shouldn’t live in fear. Nothing will change if we don’t do something!”
Last week, in a community space in a Coventry neighbourhood, a powerful call to action resonated around the room. Broad smiles broke out upon even the most cynical of faces, and there was a palpable shift in energy, as a group of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from local organisation, Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG), discussed the steps they can take to proactively challenge the issues they face while seeking safety in the UK.
A multicultural city of 310,000 people, Coventry has been benefitting from the contributions made by migrants since the Huguenots fled France in the 17th century and set up industries in the area. Bombed severely during the Second World War, Coventry was later twinned with Dresden and a further 25 international cities, as a symbol of its commitment to peace and reconciliation. Today, Coventry is part of the UK’s national ‘City of Sanctuary’ scheme, which aims to build and promote a culture of hospitality and welcome, particularly for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.
Despite the city’s global outlook, commitment to justice for all, and supposed proud tradition of openness and tolerance, many migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in Coventry, still face severe challenges, from finding quality legal aid for their asylum cases, or securing accommodation, to accessing health care services, and participating in education. People who have fled to the UK to escape persecution at home have been unfairly detained; forced to live a life of uncertainty and limbo while their cases flounder in the UK’s bureaucratic and dysfunctional immigration system; and housed in sub-standard and unsafe government-contracted accommodation. In turn, this has caused people to be separated from their children and families for years on end, fall behind in their careers and studies, and suffer from physical and mental health problems. Through no fault of their own, migrants in Coventry – whether from Jamaica or Zimbabwe, Malawi or Dubai – have found themselves marginalised by an inherently racist immigration system that over the past decade has gone from being ineffective at its very best, to the deliberately insidious and hostile public policy enforced today by Theresa May’s government.
Against this backdrop, it can appear difficult to know how to bring about positive change for refugees and asylum-seekers. At times, it seems hard enough to improve the situation of specific individuals, let alone to catalyse the larger, structural changes that are needed to ensure a fair system for all people who come to the UK in search for a better, safer life. For refugees and asylum seekers themselves – who by the very nature of the status and conditions imposed upon them, have practically no access to the resources required to fight for change – changing their circumstances may feel even more unfeasible.
But, as the members of CARAG are demonstrating, it is possible, and all the more so when people come together, connect, and speak out. Already holding weekly meetings, participating in local and nation-wide campaigns, speaking at events, and advocating on each others’ behalf, with support from Migrants Organise CARAG now has another set of tools available – an understanding and insight into basic principles of community organising.
Working with Migrants Organise CEO, Zrinka Bralo, and Community Organiser Sian Drinkwater, last week ten individuals from CARAG learned about the way in which they can harness a community organising approach to unite along shared interests, bring about positive change on the issues affecting them, and become a long-term force to be reckoned with against the powers of the government, City, and media.
Via a day-long workshop, CARAG members learnt about the roots of community organising – which go back to the 19thcentury in Europe, the United States, South Africa and South America – and the ideas and techniques that were developed over the course of a century via global union, civil rights, suffragette and other social justice movements. They also learnt about the practical elements of community organising including how to to use one-to-one, relational meetings to identify another person’s vision, talents and interests; identify the issues that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Coventry care about; build community leaders; mobilise people to take collective action; and build relationships and networks that are strong enough not only to resolve one person’s problems, but to support longer struggles for change on systemic issues affecting far larger groups of people.
Importantly, the workshop also enabled CARAG members to re-evaluate their relationship to power. By mapping out their networks, connections, and links with other individuals and groups in the community, and identifying the influence and leverage they by extension held, they were able to see that they were not powerless. Although refugees and asylum seekers are typically excluded from the inner circles of authority and privilege, CARAG members understood that they could combine, be counted, and together achieve the shifts in power that enable social change. For many, the process of understanding their own agency and ability to act was a victory in itself: “Refugees and migrants are dehumanised and treated in a derogatory manner, but we should be respected and treated just like anyone else,” said one participant. “This workshop is helping us to act together to restore our power, dignity and trust.”
Referencing the way in which our immigration systems and structures shame and marginalise people, Zrinka also explained how a sense of righteous anger can be a productive tool to replace feelings of humiliation and degradation, and instead inspire and motivate individuals to campaign for justice. The need to plan specific activities and actions, develop agendas, and prepare carefully for meetings with authorities, was also reiterated as a means to effectively negotiate with and win over decision-makers.
By the end of the session, CARAG members were determined to start developing their own organising steps and practical actions ready for implementation over the coming months, and to share their learning with other members of their group. As one member put it: “We’re ready to turn our pain into anger, our anger into motivation, and motivation into success!”
Migrants Organise is working to build a national movement of powerful experienced migrant, refugee, and BME community leaders, who together can make significant, systemic changes in migration-related policies, practices, and attitudes at local, regional, and national levels. We also share our working methodology with migrant and refugee groups by delivering training and acting as a platform from which they are able to speak out. For more information about community organising and our specific work in Coventry, contact email@example.com.