Guest post by Ernest Zhanaev, Refugee Journalism Project
It is a crisp February morning and I am on the train heading to the Refugee Week Conference hosted at Coventry Cathedral. It’s the city where before the Norman Conquest, Lady Godiva entered naked in a merciful plea to her husband, the Earl of Mercia, to protect the tenants of their wealthy household from overtaxing.
Refugee Week in the UK happens every year around World Refugee Day on 20 June, and celebrates the contribution of people who were forced to leave their homes and loved ones.
As well as attending the workshops designed to help plan for the main event in June, I was also interested in using the opportunity to speak to people about the employment of refugees, which is seen by many as a means of integration. The challenge was to find at least one individual who had secured a job whilst having the status of refugee. The evidence according to different sources shows unemployment amongst this group is high – up from 50% to 75% in recent years.
Looking at the sculpture of the Devil slain by St Michael created by Sir Jacob Epstein at the post-war Coventry Cathedral, I overhear one venerable man whilst in the queue to register as a participant.
He spoke about refugees being most welcome in this country as the need for labour in the workforce in the UK is immense. He added that he felt the government’s efforts to reduce immigration was just not comprehensible. While armed offensives are over nowadays, it is a global competition that lacks the main warfare – human resources – his respected individuality continued adding that the trade with countries where migrants were coming from demands the knowledge these people possess. Those queuing wholeheartedly agreed.
Noting this somehow comforting opinion by a member of the public, I proceeded to the main hall. I met my friend there and we enjoyed being photographed for a wall inviting participants to share ‘What we are grateful for’.
I wrote on the blackboard underlining with a hashtag “Being different” and “#freeAzimjanAskarov” – a Kyrgyz human rights defender jailed for life. On another artwork, we pinned our country on a map of the world and connecting it to the UK with a woolen thread. We also listened to the music and rhymes by the young and talented musician Sibongile Mkoba along with the crowd chanting her lyrics, ‘We’re human beings’.
Cheered by the collective agreement on our dignity, we then had the opportunity to split into different workshops. I decided to attend the session on ‘Refugee-led Projects’. The workshop recognised that projects should combine refugees and professionals with project management skills, as well as a knowledge of project cycle activity, value-for-money, ethical principles, and other approaches necessary for effective implementation of planned activities involving public funds.
After spending some time speaking to different participants, I was pleased to find Mustafa Al Rimi, 39, who has been living in Coventry since 2016.
‘Firstly, everything was difficult. I understood nothing,’ he started, ‘but love challenge and everything new.’ Mustafa used to be a clerk at home in Syria exploiting mostly communication skills to achieve results, and finally, this experience benefited him in the UK. He started off volunteering for Refugee Week, then offering translation support to Coventry City Council and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
Mustafa Al Rimi at the Refugee Week Conference in Coventry
‘Volunteering gave me self-confidence, developed my skills, language. Now, two years later I’m a football coach thanks to the community, great and friendly people.’
‘Refugee Week is a good idea – you can meet new people and new friends. You can sing, dance’,
‘And secure a job?’, I interfered.
‘Yes’, Mustafa shined with a confident and encouraging smile.
‘And to share your experience?” I carried on.
‘I came here today because I believe I can help those who still need support. I can help people to be happy.’
Mustafa – now a newly qualified sports coach – is a good example of employment being a primary way of integrating refugees in Britain.
In last year’s Christmas message, the Queen said that, ‘Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding.’
Coventry Cathedral is known for its reconciliation appeals since and despite it was destroyed in Blitz in 1940, and now it embraces us, compassionate to the issue of refugees, according to its pastor Kathryn Fleming. Such a subtle parallel of Refugee Crisis with a war made me feel a little uncomfortable. However, not to that extent when some media used a ‘migrant’ word as a weapon to gain minds.
A single carriage train was taking me away from the city of Coventry, now unexpectedly beautiful to me. We are human beings who in defiance of dehumanising people, whatever their immigration status is, stepped out with sympathies in our hearts for those struggling to survive against political agenda.
By its existence, Refugee Week will encourage us to do that simple act towards ‘greater understanding’.
Ernest Zhanaev and Mustafa Al Rimi at the Refugee Week Conference in Coventry
All images (c) Ernest Zhanaev