Posts Tagged Refugee
Above: A Runner, Another Runner, Me
Well, I never said I’d run the Great Yorkshire fast. In fact, I quite distinctly and explicitly said I’d run slowly, and I did. Slightly more slowly than last year, in fact. However hard I try, I find myself falling back towards the rear of the last wave of runners, alongside people who are in fact walking, and people in cumbersome fancy dress. If I’m honest, I do mind that, a bit.
I don’t expect to cross the finish line to a ticker tape welcome, cheer leaders waving pom poms, reporters queuing up to interview me about the experience. But for the stragglers, those last few runners to stagger over the line, there’s a bit of a sense of anti-climax as we stumble on suddenly jelly like legs to grab the last few goodie bags, and head home, as if we’ve arrived at a party after the booze has run out, and the music’s been turned down low.
I like to think, however, that there’s something a little bit heroic about my continued efforts in a field where I am so clearly not gifted. I like to think that the kind and cheery people who still line the route to the bitter end, who call out ‘Well done Catherine, keep going, you’re doing fine’, recognise a certain bloody-minded determination, whether or not they recognise or value the cause for which I run.
In recent weeks there have been cheers and tears for a Somali born refugee who’s proud to say that this is his country and to wear the British flag around his shoulders as he kneels on the track to pray. And as we marvel at the Paralympics we remember also that it was a refugee from Nazism, Ludwig Guttman, who saw that people with spinal cord injuries who had been written off, left to die slowly and in despair could be given new hope, purpose and the chance to achieve through therapy and sport. (And Guttman wouldn’t have been here without the help of the Society for Protection of Science and Learning, now the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.) This doesn’t prove anything, of course, except that amongst those who make their way here are some exceptionally gifted individuals. But to me it says that a country that is confident enough in itself to be open and generous, hospitable and inclusive, will be enriched by that. If we were to take away from our culture the contribution of refugees, we’d lose more than that gold medal, and more even than the Paralympic Games. We’d lose landmark buildings, high street names, publishing houses, works of art – in every field of business, politics, science, arts, sports, we’d lose. The societies that drive people out because of their beliefs, their race, their sexuality, they lose. And if the displaced and the exiled are not given sanctuary, then those people, gifted or not, destined to be famous or not, will be lost too, along with those who never got the chance to escape.
So, actually, I do like to think that I can use not only something I am quite good at (writing, communication) but something that I’m really
rather rubbish at, both for the same purpose, both to support the same cause, because more and more I believe that it is one of the most
important things we can do, to support refugees.
If you’d like to help, you can sponsor me here: http://www.justgiving.com/Catherine-Annabel0
Find out more about the work of Refugee Action here:
- Why I run, why I run very slowly – and why I run for Refugee Action (cathannabel.wordpress.com)
Those who’ve known me longest are the most surprised that I run – I spent most of my life strenuously avoiding unnecessary physical activity. However, to my own surprise, I enjoy it. It helps that where I live in Sheffield I can run for a few minutes from my home and find myself looking out over the lovely Rivelin valley, which lifts the spirits, even on a drizzly day. On a sunny day, it makes me want to burst into song (I don’t, as I’m usually too out of breath, and I don’t want to frighten the horses/dog walkers/other runners who are out there too). On the flip side, you can’t run anywhere in Sheffield without having to deal with hills …
The Great Yorkshire Run is a great experience – there’s the full spectrum of runners, from the elite group (who were back across the finish line almost before my ‘wave’ set off) to unlikely runners like me. I’m slow – though I get a tiny bit faster each time – which is fine, it’s a run and not a race, and I’m a middle-aged, traditionally built (thank you Alexander McCall Smith) woman, a pit pony rather than a gazelle. But I keep going – once I start running I don’t stop, till I cross the finish line.
Last year I shaved 3 minutes of my previous year’s time (which itself was 10 minutes faster than I’d ever achieved in training). When I’d slogged up the final cruelly steep hill a sudden spell of dizziness and breathlessness led to an ignominious journey on a golf cart to the medical tent. This year, I’ve had back problems which stopped me training for a few weeks. Despite that, I’ll be doing the Great Yorkshire again this year, wearing the Refugee Action t-shirt.
Anyone who read my Refugee Week‘s worth of blogs about refugees will not be surprised at my choice of charity. It’s really important to me how my country treats people who arrive here seeking sanctuary from persecution, violence and war. My parents offered hospitality to Hungarian refugees after the uprising in 1956. Ten years later we found ourselves in northern Nigeria during the violence that preceded the civil war, when Igbo people were killed in their homes, on the streets, on the university campuses and in hospital wards. Even those trying to escape from Nazi Europe often found their accounts of persecution doubted, and were unwelcome where they sought refuge. You only have to read the reporting in many newspapers of any refugee issues to see how many half-truths and complete falsehoods are trotted out to bolster the view that we should send them all back (or at least send them somewhere else). I know how much Refugee Action does to support these people, and to counter prejudice and misinformation, and I’m proud to be raising funds for this work.
So, if you feel as I do about the importance of this work, please sponsor me here:
Seventy or so years ago, homosexuals were arrested across Nazi Europe – around 100,000 of whom between 5 and 15 thousand were sent to concentration camps, where 60% of them are believed to have been killed. Their place in the Holocaust was not recognised officially for many years – after all, survivors could not tell their stories openly in societies where their sexuality was still criminalised and stigmatised.
Today in Uganda the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, apparently withdrawn under intense international pressure, has been reintroduced to parliament. It would broaden the criminalisation of same-sex relations by creating two categories: aggravated homosexuality (e.g. acts committed by someone who is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, a repeat offender, commits acts on a minor or using intoxicating substances),which would attract the death penalty, or the offense of homosexuality punishable merely by life imprisonment. This legislation extends to those who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, and includes penalties for supporting gay people or LGBT rights. Uganda is not alone – homosexuality is punishable by death in a number of other countries, and criminalised across much of the globe. In these countries, not only are LGBT people subject to judicial punishments but to unofficial violence, against which they can have no hope of redress or protection.
Despite this, for a long time in UK asylum law, the idea that one’s sexual orientation could be grounds for seeking refugee status was not accepted. As a result, even where people could show that they had faced persecution because of their sexuality, and that their home country criminalised homosexuality, they were told to go home, and be discreet. Two years ago this was overturned by the UK Supreme Court.
‘The Home Office argument paralleled the idea that if Anne Frank could have avoided persecution by hiding forever in the attic, then she wouldn’t have qualified as a refugee. Sir John Dyson calls this argument “absurd and unreal”. The test essentially creates two parallel persecutions – the objective risk from the state or society one comes from, and the living lie required to hide from it. Moreover, the court holds that there is no possible yardstick for measuring when suppressing ones sexuality is “reasonably tolerable”. The question the court of appeal posed regarding what is “reasonably tolerable” is fundamentally unanswerable. As Lord Rodger points out, in the final analysis, “there is no relevant standard since it is something which no one should have to endure”.’ (Bernard Keenan, ‘Milestone victory for gay refugees’, Guardian, 7 July 2o10)
This was obviously a huge step forward. And the refugee organisations who helped to bring about this change also lobbied for improved training for UKBA staff, to enable them to deal with these issues more sensitively, and with a greater cultural understanding (see Stonewall’s report for the background to this). Things may well have improved in this area too, but the number of cases where gay asylum seekers are currently threatened with deportation suggests there is some way to go.
Julia Kristeva argued that the stranger/refugee multiplies masks and false selves. In their homeland the refugee may have had to ‘pass’, as conforming to whatever set of beliefs and behaviours will make them acceptable. In their place of sanctuary, the immediate threat may have been removed, but they still need to keep themselves as inconspicuous as possible, given that the very fact of being a stranger makes them vulnerable. And if the reason for their exile is their sexuality, their claim for refugee status is dependent upon their ability to be open about something that has been a source of shame and fear, something that may still expose them to violence. A new report from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration says that ‘LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm despite being among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world. Moreover, they are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy.’
So, if the gay asylum seeker conforms to the norms of mainstream society, they may not convince officialdom that they are genuinely in need of asylum because of their sexuality. If they conform to officialdom’s expectations of gay identity, they put themselves in even greater danger should their claim fail and they be deported, and they expose themselves to prejudice and aggression here – most poignantly, the communities which for many asylum seekers provide a vital support network, their compatriots in exile, may be the most hostile. Double jeopardy.
Stonewall, No Going Back: Lesbian and Gay People and the Asylum System, 2010
Julia Kristeva, Etrangers à nous-mêmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
Médecins sans Frontières report from South Sudan:
Upper Nile State in South Sudan has seen an influx of some 35,000 refugees over the last three weeks, with a further 15,000 refugees said to be on their way. Most arrive on foot, carrying their most precious possessions. Many have been walking for weeks and some describe having had to leave the weakest members of their party by the roadside.
Most are fleeing fighting in neighbouring Sudan. They arrive to find refugee camps already overcrowded and aid workers struggling to provide enough water for the 70,000 refugees already in the area, because of this thousands chose to walk to other temporary camps.
“All these people in the camps are normal people who had normal lives. They had houses and clothes, and then one day, they had to pack their things, leave their lives behind and start to walk. If they were lucky enough and strong enough, they made it to one of these camps. And if they weren’t, then they died along the way” – Chiara Burzio
Meanwhile, closer to home, Refugee Action‘s appeal will be broadcast on Radio 4 this weekend:
Tune in on Sunday 24th June at 7.55am and 9.26pm when we’ll be broadcasting a very personal message to 1.9 million Radio 4 listeners. The Refugee Action appeal will focus on how, with your support, we’re providing a lifeline for thousands of destitute asylum seekers across the country by giving food parcels, clean clothes and small amounts of money for a hostel bed for a few nights. It will be read by Santok, one of our caseworkers. Please share this with your friends, family and colleagues so we’re able to let as many people as possible know.