I think that we can officially say that spring is upon us. This is very much a good thing. I would like to apologise for the delay in sending out this newsletter. I have no real excuse. I can perhaps plead a little bit of lockdown exhaustion. Still, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Not least the indefatigable nature of my colleagues.
They have been moving heaven and earth to help talented seamstress, mask maker and all round good egg, Nasrine, and her family find a new and better flat. The family are so close to setting up on their own in Brighton. This is no mean feat.
By the by, if you need any sewing, alterations or dressmaking, you can do a lot worse than getting in contact with us. Nasrine is one of the best in the business.
Another colleague, meanwhile, has been helping one of our current residents find a job and a room of her own, as she has recently been awarded Leave to Remain. Her situation really captures the iniquity of the “family life” route. Having to renew your visa every 2 ½ years, as you do on a private and family life route, not only means a bureaucratic hassle and stress on a regular basis, there is a real risk of you losing your visa. It’s a risk that is compounded by the hideously expensive cost of the Visa, currently £2593, and that’s before you pay a lawyer. You can get a fee waiver in some circumstances, but it’s a complicated business and requires providing a lot of financial documentation. Our person couldn’t afford the fee, lost her visa, lost her job and lost her house. We were able to assist, thanks to our Guardian grant from NACCOM, with the fees. Room for Refugees kept her housed until there were enough of us to fund her own place and now she is more or less back on her feet and moving on. It’s another triumph for kindness over hostility.
Yet another volunteer has been working very hard to keep a young asylum seeker housed. Like so many others, he has been caught up in the interminable delays that are endemic to the asylum system. It seems pretty standard to wait for over a year for an interview and then another year for a decision. It’s not acceptable. If you don’t have the staff to make decisions quickly, then there is absolutely no excuse to prevent people from working whilst they wait. If you were also allowed access to housing benefit, then there would be next to no need for the Home Office to provide asylum accommodation.
As it is, people are currently being trapped in empty hotels or disused army barracks, seemingly indefinitely. With next to no money, no control over your diet and nothing to do, these need to be considered de facto detention centres, even before we take into account stories of the staff imposing a curfew and restricting people’s liberty. Unsurprisingly, our young man, couldn’t cope with the situation and preferred to take his chances with his friends in Brighton. Those chances ran out as his friend struggled to keep themselves housed, but with your support, Room for Refugees and now, Refugees at Home, we’ve been able to help him stay close to his support network.
The truth is that we need more money. I haven’t been completely useless this month on the support front. I have had some contact with a young woman, a young man and a man my age.
They could all do with housing in Brighton. Hosting is okay, but it’s not a brilliant long-term solution. We’ve currently arranged host placements for four people and so by my count there are at least seven people on the waiting list. It’s around about £500 to £600 per person, per month and that’s about 100 to 150 donors. Do keep telling your friends about us.
One thing you could do is invite them to the next Citizens of the World in Conversation event. You can find the last one on our website. It was a fascinating conversation with Saliou Diouf of Boza Fii and the Alarm Phone talking about struggles against the European border in North and West Africa. The next event will be 8 April in collaboration with the Feminist Bookshop and Pluto Press. Leah Cowan, author of “Border Nation”, will be in conversation with Emily Kenway, author of “The Truth about Modern Slavery”. It should be a really interesting event. We haven’t set up the ticketing yet, but it’s by donation will be shouting about it on our social media and website.
Vaccines For All
In other news, last month, for the first time in a very long time, I left the house to go further than the local shops. I had to go and get my vaccination. It was very exciting. Not only was it a warm sunny day, but, rightly or wrongly, going to get my jab made it feel like there was a solution to this mess. Deeper than that though, the whole process reminded me of all the important things that this Covid crisis has revealed. Going to get the vaccine felt like an act of collective solidarity, from the bus driver who helpfully pointed out the most efficient route from the bus stop to the health centre, through the young guy in the takeaway coffee shop who kindly let my assistant use the loo, to the numerous volunteers keeping the vaccination centre running and the patients keen to make the operation work. I hadn’t appreciated that the vaccination drive relied so heavily on volunteers and collaboration.
All the way through this crisis, people have displayed such beautiful solidarity. I think that far more than the powers that be, the population have realised that the way to deal with a pandemic is through collective action. We saw that most strikingly in the rapid and spontaneous formation of mutual aid groups, but here it was being displayed even in the most “high-tech”, top-down response to Covid 19. Of course, it’s not just the volunteers at the vaccination centres giving this vaccination strategy a chance. It’s also Voices in Exile, Refugee Radio, the Network of International Women, the Brighton and Hove Muslim Forum and others talking to their members, making sure that people are signed up with the GP, helping people understand what risks are and are not associated with the vaccination. It’s also Doctors of the World, Medact and others, including ourselves, who are campaigning for Vaccines for All, to make sure that the border does not leave a large section of community exposed to the virus. Away from the organisational level, it’s the individuals talking with their friends and family or even those who are afraid of the side effects deciding that they will take that risk because it will make their neighbour safer. If the vaccination strategy does work, we won’t just have the much loved and little paid nursing and administrative staff at the NHS to thank. It will have been a collective effort.
I am optimistic enough to think that we can start to look to the future. We can look forward to a summer of joy, but only if we allow the truth of what has happened to pervade public consciousness. For me, I want to hold on to what I now think is a self-evident truth: there is no substitute for physical, off-line presence. That truth applies both in the economic sphere, but also in the broader, human sphere. The key workers in this economy are quite clearly those who could not work from home. That is to say, warehouse operatives, delivery drivers, shop assistants, carers, nurses, doctors, rubbish collectors, cleaners and so on. For things to be done and for people to be cared for, there is still no substitute for elbow grease.
This may be a reflection of my middle-class preoccupations, but it also seems to me that we should also have learned that the economic sphere is not the important one. Of course, we have to eat and that requires work to be done, but most of us have spent a year working but unable to do anything else with other people. For me at least, that has been very tough and I’m lucky. I am living with two excellent people (my parents) and even have excellent live-in carers. We really need each other.
It is much too much to hope that these insights will by themselves change the way the world operates, let alone the way the border operates. Still, it provides a solid foundation for something different. The stress points and the weaknesses of our society have been exposed. We’ve also seen just how much of a bedrock there is of social solidarity. We build on that bedrock by finding the next £600/month and housing one more person the border would otherwise leave out in the cold and slowly, slowly we build a world organised around compassion and the recognition that what truly makes us rich is other people.