Goldsmiths English PEN member and organiser Hannah Tasker tells us all about it and how you can make a difference too.
As a committee member of the Goldsmiths’ English PEN society, I have just helped to organise and run the university’s very first Refugee Awareness Week (4th-8th February 2019). English PEN is the UK branch of the international organisation PEN that fights for freedom of speech and expression all over the world — for example in countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Libya where journalists, authors and the media are imprisoned simply for what they write. At Goldsmiths we aim to not only raise awareness for these issues and more general humanitarian crisis’, but also think a really important aspect to what we do is to recognise and celebrate our platform to express ourselves freely in this country, as it can be very easy to forget how lucky we are here.
So, how did Refugee Awareness Week come about?
Three of our five committee members have volunteered at various refugee camps in Greece and Calais, leading us to discuss their experiences and the crisis often after summer. From these conversations we started to really realise the damning and absolute lack of media coverage for this ever growing international problem. On top of this, as most people are, we were deeply saddened when hearing misconceptions and stereotypes people project, uninformed, onto refugees. But how could we begin to make even the slightest bit of progress and help? This is when we realised one of the fundamental issues within people’s understanding of the crisis is a complete lack of knowledge — very much including ourselves. Raising awareness seemed like the place to start.
We finalised a week plan of five events: a creative workshop based off refugee writers poetry, a screening of ‘Calais Children: A Case To Answer’, a formal discussion on border control, an informative talk on the links between climate change and migration, and an exhibition/open mic.
Monday – Brave New Voices
in collaboration with the Poetry Translation Centre in Deptford, we had poetry by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi and anthologies of poems from English PEN’ Brave New Voices collection (where they bring together refugee’s aged 12-22 across London and through workshops they produce these anthologies of their work). Over pizza, we had informal workshopping discussions as various creatives looked at what they took inspiration from in the work provided. It was a lovely atmosphere and so great to see people reading and appreciating refugee writers poetry.
Tuesday – Film Screening of Calais Children: A Case to Answer
The Calais Children film screening the next day had a large turnout, and rightly so. Filmmaker Sue Clayton’s documentary about the destruction of the Calais Jungle is heart-wrenching but vitally important to making people aware of the absolute accountability we must hold our government to in their massive failings of refugees, especially children. As Sue herself said however, this is not a film of pity and it should not be seen as such — it is one of the utmost respect for those suffering and anger at those with the power doing nothing, even when they legally should be. The panellists for the discussion after the film were: Sue Clayton (film director and media lecturer at Goldsmiths), Ruby Prins (long-term and full-time volunteer), Helen Johnson (Head of the Children Services at the Refugee Council), Pru Waldorf (co-founder of CalaisAction and curator of HumanKind) and Pru Waldorf (co-founder of CalaisAction and curator of HumanKind). This opened up an audience q&a that allowed people to gain further understanding on the crisis, and also see the options they have at home and away to help and to volunteer.
Wednesday – Border Control
We held our formal discussion, whether border control has gone too far. As, typically, a left wing student based university, this event was more to inform and start a conversation than to debate as such. It was great to see such a mix of people, some already very well informed, people with personal experiences, and others there to simply gain a better understanding about the current situation and issues — myself being one of them. One of the main points raised is the fact that the Home Office being the body to deal with refugees is inherently wrong. It is most definitely time to be putting pressure on the government to replace the Home Office — a body that deal with threats to our country — in dealing with refugees. That is, of course, much easier said than done, but was something a lot of us had not previously taken onboard.
Thursday – Climate Change & Migration
Our penultimate event was a talk on climate change and migration, with Rachel Kennerley from Friends of the Earth giving an informative lecture followed by a Q&A. This is an aspect to the refugee crisis that is incredibly prevalent but not often properly spoken about or known about. In its simplest form, the talk was about how factors bought about by climate change (deforestation, famines, extreme weather) are contributing, and often forcing people, to migrate. These people are currently not covered under any form of law in a way that would assist them as they are, in law, not viewed as refugee’s. The problem of the refugee crisis as a whole not being covered enough by the media makes an issue like this even less talked about — a problem in itself with the worsening of international climate change.
This was the last event of Refugee Awareness Week. The turnout was brilliant and we found the mix of performers from the workshop, alongside open mic slots, worked really well to make a very supportive and creative atmosphere. We were lucky enough to be joined by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, one of the poets we had been looking at on the Monday, as he came along with Bern Roche Farrelly from the Poetry Translation Centre. One girl performed poetry that she had written directly from one of his poems and another girl had curated some beautiful drawings of some of the poets, again including Al-Saddiq. We came away from the night proud of how the week had gone, very happy that people had cared and wanted to learn, but mainly feeling that this is just the start.
With the three events in the middle of the week, our aim was to inform people and start a discourse that is not currently present at Goldsmiths. Then the workshop and exhibition — of work created from the Monday featuring Al-Saddiq reading his poetry — bought another key aspect into the week. This was the idea that we need to break down the label of refugee. If we work to bring the discourse surrounding this topic down to an individual and personal level; if we can get people to see refugee’s as not this alienating label but as the poets, artists, authors they are just like us; if people are as willing to learn and be understanding of these people as the response we had from our events, then maybe we can begin to aid this international situation on a human level.
Could You Be The Next One To Organise An Event?
In putting on this 5 event week we were incredibly lucky to have 5 members of the committee organising between us all. It was a lot of work to put in but I know I can speak for all of us in saying it was completely worthwhile — in terms of what we learnt and also in seeing that people really are wanting to be informed themselves and help others. University is a brilliant time to grab opportunities like this, where you can participate in things that really matter to you and others. We are so lucky to have such a supported platform whilst at university, so all I can say is do it whilst you can and start to make a difference!
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