The following guest blog is written by Imogen Faux, who interned at St Ethelburga’s as part of a fellowship at Year Here, the innovation hub for social entrepreneurs. Shortly after Imogen joined the St Ethelburga team, the country went into lockdown and staff began working from home.
‘We have to start by asking the question, who’s grateful?’
On the Zoom call in front of me is Jo, the Project Manager of Refugee Allies, who finishes her point and the meeting moves on. A normal Monday.
But the question sticks.
It’s early summer, and cut loose from our base in a little building in the City of London, the St Ethelburga’s team are busily converting programmes formerly run at the Centre into a suite of toolkits that can be downloaded and used by anyone, anywhere.
On this particular Monday, the focus is Becoming an Ally, the online version of Refugee Allies ‘ flagship social inclusion programme, Act: Speak: Inspire. Through learning and experience, the training aims to build up individuals to be catalysts for change in their communities; transforming attitudes to refugees in order to create a more compassionate, inclusive and supportive home for vulnerable migrants entering the UK.
But there’s no simple process of mapping real-world programmes in deep personal and social transformation onto a digital platform, it turns out. Not least when the programme in question aims to establish a nuanced understanding of the experience of forced migration and to build authentic connection between displaced people and British communities.
In the spring, a new influx of refugees arrived at the already overcrowded camps on the Greek Islands in response to a relaxation of Turkish land and sea borders. We watched in dismay as essential support to the settlements withdrew with the advance of the virus. So, as societies retreated into insular bubbles, a collaboration of St Ethelburga’s staff began adapting Refugee Allies to promote a new, remote kind of support. But the paradox was hard to ignore. How could Refugee Allies’ programme Act: Speak: Inspire continue in these circumstances?
Revising a programme that had been designed to include a week on volunteering with frontline organisations supporting displaced people in Calais, France was one thing. But before that came a much bigger conundrum: how can we be allies in a virtual world? Indeed, what did being an ally even mean now?
A few weeks after we asked ourselves this question, an indelible act of racial hatred sent the same question out from an epicentre in Minneapolis to the world. Global media pulsed with themes of solidarity, responsibility and alliance in the fight against racist oppression.
Against this backdrop, we got to work building solidarity with refugees online. Storytelling, film screenings, live interviews… our new platform promised to be a hub of activity and ideas. But was this still second best to the real world programme? Could entering an online seminar ever be as formative as stepping into an asylum-seekers’ settlement?
Then came the Monday meeting, and the question of who’s grateful.
It’s an idea that’s central to Become an Ally. It used to be built in as a key exercise before volunteering in Calais. The premise underpinning the question is that in leaping into action without consideration, we risk seeing volunteering as a one-way exchange. We view ourselves as the doer, the giver, the helper and – even if on a subconscious level – expect gratitude in return, from a passive and needy recipient.
A bias towards action is a great thing. It moves us from being dreamers to change-makers. This couldn’t be truer than in the public discussion sparked by the events in Minneapolis: it will be the actions taken to eradicate systemic racism that show how much we really think it matters.
But the question of gratitude invites us to pause before taking action, and to consider who is benefitting, and what is being gained. Trite as it may sound, seeing action to support refugees as a one-way experience is to overlook what is gained by being a giver. It’s the chance to learn from a person’s story and knowledge; to grow in responsibility as we’re entrusted with someone’s vulnerability; and to shoulder for a moment the weight of their past and the hope of their future.
For someone who has experienced the pain and injustice of displacement and resettlement, gratitude is likely to be a long and complex process. But for the ally; for those in the receiving country; gratitude can be a helpful starting point in exploring multifaceted, two-way relationships with newcomers and outsiders.
Becoming an ally is about many things before it is about action. It’s learning to be curious about the lives of the people who’ve arrived and the systems they have to navigate. It’s the inner work required to understand our own personal prejudices, fears and motivations. It’s acknowledging the freedoms and privileges we have. And then, having undergone this process, and aware that we won’t always get it right, and that we’re forever forgetting and relearning truths – then, we consider what is ours to do.
So is it any less possible to be an ally to refugees in 2020? If the way to get there is through stepping back, listening, and deeply considering both our counterpart, and ourselves, then certainly not.
If anything, the collision of current events that have forcibly removed physicality, and forced us to wake up to the notions of responsibility and justice with regards the people of our multi-coloured societies have created the perfect conditions in which to start building strong foundations for alliance.
Let us be clear, Becoming an Ally is not a course in introspection and passivity. Quite the opposite, it’s the hope of the Refugee Allies project that this foundation of awareness and understanding lays a springboard for powerful and effective action. The sessions are designed to hone participants’ skills in empathy, relationship building, leadership and presenting; to spark practical ideas of what we can do to be an ally; and to guide our steps to making it happen. In the past, alumni have gone on to volunteer, to support numerous frontline refugee organisations, and to channel the insights they’ve gained into their home lives, workplaces and communities, transforming attitudes and building community cohesion in the most astonishing ways. We hope that the digital version of the course will lead many people to amplify the voice of displaced people in the UK and around the world, and inspire many to take action on one of the most pressing issues of our times.
Becoming an Ally will launch in the autumn. For more information and to register your interest, get in touch.
Photo by Fidel Fernando on Unsplash
With a background in media and comms, Imogen has worked in the UK and the Middle East with news platforms, NGOs, UN- and DFID-funded projects. She has been engaged on matters ranging from religious freedom, to political street music, to the preservation of remote desert communities. You can follow her progress here.