Last Wednesday, 8th March, was International Women's Day.
Over the past year we have seen a huge increase in the number of women using our services. They now account for approximately one third of those coming in search of practical help (along with one third men and one third children) and our classes, once very male dominated, are more and more equally balanced.
Asylum-seeking and refugee women are often extremely vulnerable as they struggle to adapt to an alien culture, but International Women’s Day is not only about recognising and trying to combat suffering and prejudice, it is also about celebrating.
And there is much to celebrate.
These women are determined and ambitious. They are loving and compassionate. They are strong and resilient.
The hands pictured here are those of some of the women who walked through our doors on International Women’s Day: volunteers, those who came for practical provision, and ESOL students.
These are those of all ages and all abilities, those who have different cultures, religions, languages, experiences, fears, hopes and dreams.
These are those from all around the world and from just around the corner.
These are those who have lived in Birmingham all their lives alongside those who are just tentatively beginning to call this city home; those who will stay as well as those who are just passing through.
These are those who we want to celebrate, recalling that each of them is a human being, worthy of dignity; valuable and beloved just as they are.
Holocaust Memorial Day is marked on the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi Death Camps. It is a chance to pause and reflect and remember: to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the holocaust and by subsequent and ongoing genocides.
It is a time to look back, to create a safe space to grieve for lives damaged and lost: but it is also a time to look forward: to a time when we can truly say "never again". The value of our history is to be found in the lessons we can learn for our future
Birmingham commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with an event at the Town Hall on Sunday 22nd February. Past and present suffering were powerfully evoked amidst a reminder that it is all of us, and each of us, who hold the responsibility to ensure that "never again" becomes a reality.
One speaker, who had been a child refugee welcomed to Britain during the Second World War spoke of visiting the Calais Jungle, connecting it to his own experience. This matters to me, he said, because I too was a refugee. He told the story of how his mother, who should have been able to join him in the UK in 1940, was prevented from doing so by bureaucratic delay … until it was too late: another life lost. He mourned for how little seems to have changed, how little has been learned. Bureaucratic delays still keep people away from our shores. I wonder if anyone is counting how many deaths have their names in piles of paper on a home office desk.
One of our own Sudanese students dared to stand up in front of a crowded banqueting hall to tell his own, more recent, experience of surviving genocide and escaping Darfur. It was a story of destruction and pain and separation and suffering. He demonstrated overwhelming courage to share so articulately the story of things which no-one should ever have to experience. It was a story which was hard to speak but which he realised needed to be heard. It was a story that included the words "It is not just me. Everyone from Sudan, they have terrible stories." He wants the world to know, because he wants the world to help. How we wish we knew better how we could.
There is much to weep over: in our history, and in our present. But running throughout the event there was also a thread of hope: the indomitable human spirit which, while clearly capable of great cruelty is also capable of great acts of humanity, loyalty and love. It was, as an Auschwitz Survivor who shared their experiences at the event said: "Love and life itself which allowed me to go.”
We all play a part in creating the future: we must decide what we want that future to look like. Genocide never “just happens”: the possibility of it is spawned from a language of exclusion and hatred and fear; it creeps up, fed by policies and practices designed to sow division and distrust; fed by our reluctance to rock the boat and the complacency of our comfortable life.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems of our world: but to do nothing is not a solution. To stand by and watch the suffering of others, or to turn the other way so we don't have to watch is not a solution. We have to begin somewhere, but most of all we have to begin. Each of us, all of us. In our own small ways, we can choose gestures of trust instead of fear, of welcome instead of exclusion, of love instead of hate.
Here we will begin by saying to those who come to our shores seeking the freedom and safety they so desperately need, “you are welcome here” We will aspire be symbols of that "love and life itself" which allows hope to go on.
The trees are down and tinsel packed away for another year … and the manic rush of the end of term has somewhat subsided: yet many happy memories of special moments shared in the run up to the festive season remain, so we thought you might want to share in them too!
Christmas, as much if not more than any other season, is the time when the gospel realities of our work seem at the forefront of our thinking. We remain inspired by the memory of a Middle-Eastern family in precarious circumstances who journeyed far from home and struggled to find a welcome. We are inspired by God’s choice to be found among the poor and the outcast and his call for us to place ourselves there too.
Just over a week before Christmas, the Grimshaw Room at St Chad’s Cathedral hosted us for our Christmas party for our students. Highlights included having a lot of fun carol singing (with our grateful thanks to the talented musicians who made it work so well!), some silly games (because no-one is too old to play pass the parcel, are they?) but above all a chance to relax, to be among friends and to laugh together. A good time, it is safe to say, was had by all!
The last week of term is always incredibly busy as we distribute gifts to our visitors and try to meet the needs of all those who come to us, especially those with the greatest need, before the break. In the midst of it all though this year, we decided, for the first time, to host a family Christmas party forsome of our guests and their children. I think everyone who helped clear up the mess afterwards would agree that it was well worth it. We well and truly filled our reception space: filled with their presence but also with their joy and laughter. Silly games and Santa featured once again. One of the little ones spent more or less the entire afternoon just dancing away … a lesson for all of us perhaps: that the season of Christmas isn’t just about getting things done, it’s about stepping out of the humdrum of the ordinary and dancing to a different tune.
We were once more overwhelmed by the wonderful generosity of the many schools, parishes, and individuals who brought food and clothing and gifts to share with our visitors. We never cease to marvel at what is made possible by the simple gestures of kindness from friends and strangers.
It would be wrong to leave this post without mentioning the amazing work of all our fabulous volunteers: the regulars, and those who just turned up for the day but were happy to be thrown in at the deep end and muck in. There were, inevitably, minor elements of chaos towards the end of term… but not so much as there would have been without the energy and goodwill of a lot of fabulous people, who did all that was required and more. And who, above all, kept smiling to the very end… the end of term that is, and the end of carol singing in the local pub to round it all off too!
During late October and early November, over 50 of our ESOL and drop-in students had the opportunity to go to Cannon Hill Park to take part in the Green Lungs project, an initiative to welcome Birmingham’s new arrivals to the green spaces of the city.
During the workshops they explored the park, reflecting on its sights and sounds, and of course never missing an opportunity to learn a bit of new vocabulary along the way! It was notable that the students were all struck by this oasis of peace and fresh air in a city they are learning to call ‘home’.
Last Thursday we returned to the MAC for the launch of the exhibition which was created using the students’ words and images. With film footage, pictures and words, and sound installations it represents some of what the students’ experienced during the workshop days.
There is perhaps nothing as “English” as a city park, and yet the Victorians who founded many of them were great explorers and the plants come from all over the world. The students who participated were invited to plant bulbs in Cannon Hill Park, symbolic of their welcome to the city and an invitation to put down roots here and become part of all that the city is.
The launch, as much as the whole project, was a wonderful opportunity for all of those who took part: the students, and those of us lucky enough to accompany them in their discovery of this place.
These brief snippets try to paint a picture of the value of the experience:
· It was amazing to watch several of our students’ faces light up when they saw their photos or their work on the wall. It would be easy to underestimate how precious that representation of their contribution is for those who can feel undervalued by a society who refuses to let them work, or from which they feel excluded by a lack of linguistic ability.
· It must be so easy for our pre-entry students (absolute beginners) to forget how much they have to contribute, so it was a great pleasure to see one of them not only demonstrating that he was something of an expert when it came to planting, but that he suddenly discovered ways to communicate his knowledge to others. We watched his self-confidence grow before our very eyes.
· As we walked around the park after planting our bulbs, one of the students turned to ask whether it would be possible to come back and plant trees, saying “Because trees last for a very long time and they would be here even long after we have gone.” Those of us who heard were deeply touched by this desire to leave a mark on this place which has made them welcome.
We are very grateful to Ampersands Projects, Cannon Hill Park and the MAC for the fabulous opportunity and warm welcome they offered to us throughout the project.
The exhibition is open in the downstairs gallery at the MAC until 31st January. Do take the time to go and see, watch and listen to our students’ work.