Seetha Tan reflects on St Ethelburga’s 2022 Nowruz celebrations by considering the relationship between crisis and renewal, displacement and re-rooting and the importance of celebration and collaboration. As a festival that commemorates the beginning of Spring, rebirth and regeneration, this piece reflects on the displacement of the Afghan community and the possibility of new beginnings.

Celebrating new beginnings

As the first signs of spring emerged and London’s weather thawed, St Ethelburga’s Centre opened its nave to welcome the Afghan community to celebrate Nowruz, the Afghan/Persian New Year. Originating over 3,000 years ago, Nowruz is currently celebrated by more than 300 million people globally. Symbolising regeneration and regrowth, Nowruz is the festival that marks the Spring Equinox – a sacred time that ushers in new beginnings. After the hardship and darkness of winter, Nowruz is more than a commemoration of springtime, it is a celebration of emerging life.

As the Afghan community continues to weather the devastating consequences of displacement, building new homes and lives in the UK and establishing roots, this year’s celebrations carry a particular resonance. In light of the Taliban’s ban of Nowruz in Afghanistan and the decision to remove and change the Afghan national flag, to celebrate Nowruz and to continue to fly the Afghan flag is a powerful act. It is also a painful reminder that the Afghanistan that our guests left behind, no longer exists in 2022.

Given the history of St Ethelburga’s as a building, it is hard not to appreciate the significance of this space as a site of restoration and rebirth. After the 24th of April, 1993 when the IRA detonated a bomb targeting London’s financial district in Bishopsgate, St Ethelburga’s Church was rebuilt from the rubble as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Reopening its doors in 2002, the Centre has begun a new chapter, working across divisions to build communities of peace and sanctuary by creating safe and inclusive spaces to come together to celebrate and heal collectively.

Archival image depicting the aftermath of the 1993 bomb.
St Ethelburga’s Church following the 1993 bomb.

I often find myself looking up at the nave’s roof and tracing all the points the 15th century structure meets the modern brick and mortar. A living memory of where old meets new, where destruction can bring an opportunity for renewal. Fresh beginnings emerge from moments of deep crisis: this is central to the Centre’s personal story.

Traditional haft-seen table in St Ethelburga’s nave.

On Saturday and Sunday (March 19th and 20th) a team of busy volunteers and staff prepared the St Ethelburga’s Centre to welcome our guests. Balloons were inflated, decorations added, and an Afghan flag was displayed in the centre of the hall behind an ornate haft-seen table. Haft denotes ‘seven’ in the Persian alphabet and seen refers to the letter س – the Haft-seen table comprises seven items with the letter ‘seen/sin’, each carrying special meaning for the festivities.

The sprouting wheatgrass (sabzeh) is a symbol of rebirth, the sumac a symbol of sunrise, candles are also lit to reflect enlightenment and decorated eggs are placed on the table to represent fertility. In the centre of the nave, space was cleared for dancing and a table full of traditional dishes (samanak and haft-mewa) was prepared ahead of our guests’ arrival. Over the course of the weekend, families and friends gathered and ate together, sharing the sweet and sticky samanak and the fragrant haft-mewa. Children were occupied with colouring in the garden or getting henna designs painted by the artist Alisha from the local organisation Forget Me Not.

In conversation with Afghan Association Paiwand and guests from the hotel, the decision was made to divide the weekend into a men’s event on Saturday and a women’s event on Sunday. Creating an inclusive cultural event that was responsive and sensitive to the needs and wishes of the community was a critical priority for all organisers. Having a women’s only event on the Sunday created a comfortable environment for women and girls to dance, unveil if they chose and have time together in a space that was entirely dedicated to their celebration. Respecting the roots and traditions of displaced communities is central to creating a culture of inclusion.  

St Ethelburga’s has a long history of creating communities of inclusion among people of different faiths. Masumah Mojaddedi from Paiwand, noted with interest that a verse from the Qu’ran, “Our God and your God are one” (Qu’ran 29: 46) was engraved on a plaque in the Centre’s nave. The plaque acknowledges the work and legacy of John Medows Rodwell, the Rector of St Ethelburga’s Church from 1843 – 1900, who was one of the first people to reliably translate the Quran from Arabic to English in 1861. This plaque, like the Bedouin Tent, speaks to the Centre’s commitment to building community across differences; of welcoming people of all faiths and none into the Centre and our work.

Celebrating community

When St Ethelburga chose to open the doors of the Barking Abbey to plague victims in the 7th century, she offered refuge and sanctuary. St Ethelburga’s Centre continues to open its doors to this day, recognising that sanctuary also means protecting the sacredness of being together, of sharing together, of celebrating together.

In 2016 and 2017, St Ethelburga’s Centre took a group of volunteers to mainland Greece to assist in Oinofyta refugee camp which hosted many displaced Afghans. Led by the enthusiasm of the camp residents, the volunteers unexpectedly spent most of their time mixing paint and distributing paint brushes to residents, transforming the stark stud wall divisions of their converted factory dwellings into an explosion of colour. The sterile flatness of the refugee camp was transformed by symbols of home, visual reminders of the mountains, swans, mosques, hills, flowers, lakes and rivers they had been forced to leave behind.

Moments of fun – of dancing, painting, singing and eating – sometimes get deprioritised when addressing the urgent needs produced by displacement and crisis. Events such as this and Nowruz are reminders of the necessity to preserve these moments and make space for times of joy.

Children painting a mural at the Oinofyta Refugee Camp.

Indeed, the Nowruz event was an opportunity to celebrate together and reaffirm community. Despite the more formal and care-provider role Paiwand and the Local Authority took outside the nave, during Nowruz, the nave became a space for togetherness, a chance to commemorate shared culture and tradition. Paiwand’s team and hotel guests were able to collectively share in something celebratory. Everyone participated and danced the traditional Afghan national dance, the attan, and everyone shared a meal of samanak and haft mewa.

Celebrating collaboration

Building trust and community with our organisational partners in order to create inclusive and successful events was critically important. Project Manager of Refugee Allies at St Ethelburga’s Centre, Jo Winsloe Slater likened the process of welcoming partners into St Ethelburga’s to inviting someone into your ‘home’. It requires making partners feel comfortable, building trust and working together to decide how you are going to share space. Drawing on the strength, expertise and cultures of each respective partner was essential to the realisation of this event as working together produced something greater than the sum of our separate parts.

By coordinating with Paiwand and the Local Authority, the Centre was able to host an event that was sensitive to the cultural, practical and social needs of the community it served. As a frontline organisation based in North-West London, Paiwand has been inundated with crisis-management work, responding to the needs of the Afghan community directly. Through their leadership and compassion, Executive Director of Paiwand, Fahima Zaheen, Masumah Mojaddedi and members of the team have been central in guiding their communities through moments of crisis, much like St Ethelburga herself. On Sunday, Fahima Zaheen emphasised the legacy of St Ethelburga and the role and resilience of women in creating strong communities. It was a moment to recognise the strength of the women who had made this crossing, risking and sacrificing so much to build a new life in the United Kingdom.

In understanding the significance of community and the importance of creating and preserving celebratory spaces, St Ethelburga’s Centre values working closely and collaboratively with organisational partners and the community it serves. Nowruz, as a symbol of new beginnings, also symbolised the beautiful and generative partnership between the different organisations individuals who came together for this event. Nowruz Mubarak!