What’s the point of bringing refugees from the cities where they live to Respite Away Days in the mountains, valleys, lakes and villages of rural Wales? What’s to be gained, in the grand scheme of things, by bringing three minibus-fulls of refugees from Swansea and Ystradgynlais to Christ College in Brecon for a day doing things – singing, baking, playing sports, walking round the town, painting pictures – that, let’s face it, they could do quite easily left on their own? Wouldn’t the generously donated money of our supporters and the time and effort of our volunteers be better spent helping people in more dire need – the refugees in the camp in Calais, for example; or in Jordan, Lebanon or Kenya?
One important thing that comes out of these days is that ordinary people like me get to mix with ordinary people like M, from Sudan; and T, from Nigeria; and R, from Iraq; and learn just that; that refugees are ordinary people, just like me. Ordinary people, living through extraordinary experiences, thrust into extraordinary circumstances; suffering extraordinary pressures. But just like me, and you, in every way that matters.
Christ College had organised a full day for us all. Refugees from Syria, Ghana , Eritrea, Iraq , Sudan, Iran, Oman, Pakistan, Albania, Nigeria and Ethiopia, and volunteers from Swansea, joined the volunteers from HBTS4R, and teachers and pupils welcomed us and acted as our hosts and guides for the day. We started in an assembly hall where Headteacher Emma Taylor and Deputy Head Simon Hill welcomed us all and gave us an overview of the itinerary then led us to the school chapel, where we were welcomed by a song sung spontaneously by a choir formed of the school’s youngest pupils; from there we were led to the school green for a group photo; from there to brunch in the school dining hall; and from there to the range of activities spread around the school. For Emma Taylor, this was an important educational experience for her pupils; that they should have the experience of being in ‘immediate contact with refugees, so that they see them as real people like them, rather than a political problem as reported in the press’.
How just the same we are was subtly demonstrated from the moment our guests began to disembark from the minibuses (driven by the Head, Deputy Head and a Housemistress. Christ College had prepared troops of boarders to join us for the day, to welcome and to guide us all through the sequence of activities. Refugees stepped off buses into what we Brits call ‘a sunny spell’, smiling uncertainly, looking around shyly, at us, at the surroundings, at each other, wondering what to expect. Christ College pupils, lined and clustered in welcome formation, regarded them shyly, smiling uncertainly, approaching them hesitantly, looking at each other, wondering what to expect. Simon Hill, the Deputy Head, called us all to attention and we followed him to the assembly hall for the welcome address. The Christ College pupils were ranged in the upper rows of the auditorium and they were exhorted by Simon to wave at the rest of us, to identify themselves to us, for our future convenience; first them all, then their seniors specifically. I’m sure these well-educated, well-cared-for young people are confident and capable; but any teenager finding themselves pressed to wave at a room of sixty or so total strangers, most of whom have turned their faces to peer at you over their shoulders and are doing so openly, might struggle not to wilt. Emma, Simon and other teachers then led us, in partnership with these fledgling guides, finding their feet shyly in this tricky new task, to the school chapel, where small choir singers, lit by sunshine picking its way to them through stained glass, studied us as we shuffled down the aisle, hushed by the grandeur of this ancient building, and slid in twos and threes down pews. Children sang, a little falteringly at first, eyes casting constantly sideways to survey probably the most diverse audience they’d ever sung to. The audience, for their part, nodded, smiling, appreciating these little singers, recognising in them their own children, their shyness in the face of this newness; their own children sat beside them, wide-eyed, watching their peers sing, listening as the hymn blessed the name of the Lord, as their own hymns, in their own faiths and in their own languages, surely do. As we all filed out for our photo, pupil guides started to slip into their roles, gently encouraging guests in the right directions, with palpable shyness and uncertainty. We all smiled and smiled conveying, with our faces, our eagerness to communicate, our pleasure to be there, our willingness to please, our openness to enjoying what the day might bring; as people do in situations where words are not yet, or not at all, possible. Everyone behaving as all human beings do.
‘This place is a friendly place, a beautiful place and an ancient place’ Emma told us, in her welcome address. I am not the only one who reflected on this as I sat in the stained-glass-refracted light, beneath the vaulted roof, in the cradle of hundreds-year-old stone walls, and thought about Palmyra, and the countless numbers of ancient places of priceless worth blasted to irrecoverable rubble in the many wars and disputes across the globe from which the people next to me and behind me and all around me today have fled. ‘I loved being in such a historical place, said D, from Eritrea, later; and I wondered how many memories and how many individual instances of loss flowed unseen beneath simple statements like these.
‘Eating together is a very good way of getting to know each other’ said Emma, in her welcome address. And so to a brunch of ‘Full Welsh Breakfast’ favourites in the dining hall, another place of ancient, timeless beauty and pigment-filtered light, smiled on by heads past in formal portrait poses from walls three feet thick. Refugees, volunteers, pupils and staff, children, teenagers and adults, spread evenly through the queue as it inched past serving counters and the smiling dinner ladies and it was probably only the teachers and HBTS4R volunteers prompting conversation between people who didn’t already know each other. At tables, refugees and pupils clustered with people they knew and it was probably only HBTS4R volunteers plonking themselves down next to strangers, making introductions and small talk. But what humans do, in new situations, is seek familiarity. We ate together in the standard manner that human beings do. Our openness to the experience was expressed in our faces and our body language as gradually, through the day, conversation and communication built and ice melted away.
After lunch, Simon called the room to order and took us through what was going to happen over the afternoon. R, from Iraq, stood beside him, translating into Arabic. I had wondered, casting my eyes around the assembly hall as Emma and Simon had introduced us to the school and the plan for the day, how much was making it through the language barrier. R had wondered the same thing and put himself forward for translator duty for the rest of the day. R has excellent English. He also has a Masters in electrical engineering. His English is so good that he explained to me, at length, the basics of microwave links, which I’d never heard of, and how he had used them to develop a new, faster data transmission system for his Masters’ final project. Translating is a little more mundane but he did it with panache, and between them Simon and R directed our attention to the activity group leaders arrayed around the outskirts of the room, under whose aloft-held signs we were to herd ourselves, according to preferred activities. I was music, along with another volunteer, Erica; M from Sudan; T from Nigeria; four children – two sets of brother and sister, S and M and Z and M – and a teacher whose name, to my chagrin, I forget. Bill, a musician whose partner is a teacher at the school, led us. English and Arabic were our mother tongues, but that didn’t stop us singing Sosban Fach, in Welsh! When he told us this is what we were starting with, I was anxiously doubtful. As we sang it, falteringly, I cast my eyes covertly over our guests, anxious that this would be too difficult; that they wouldn’t enjoy it. I was pleased when Bill led the children into an adjoining room and led them out again proud bearers of a range of rattly, bangy shakers, drums and tambourines; and when the teacher with us led a noisy, foot-stamping, drumming, shaking, hollering procession around the room. I thought that the merits of Sosban Fach and Hey Jude, despite Bill’s lovely guitar playing, had probably passed our guests by. But let that be a lesson to me. M, from Sudan, later said: ‘I really enjoyed the singing group and I learned some Welsh words too. I hope I can remember the songs that I learnt.‘ Bravo, Bill!
The children probably won’t remember the words, but little S will remember the beautiful grand piano that we encountered in the adjoining room. She hung back and slipped onto the piano stool, looking a question at me, and I stopped to watch as she lifted the lid and started to play. She played just a little, seeming to tune in to her absence being noted in the other room, as though a fleeting caress of the keys was enough to satisfy something in her, some yearning, perhaps; then she gently replaced the lid and came to my side and we returned to the others. I wondered if, among all the other things she has lost in her short life, a piano, and daily playing, is one.
After music we went to art, to join those of our fellows who had chosen art as their first port of call after brunch. The art block is big and there was plenty of room for us all to spread over tables replete with paper, watercolours, pastels and charcoal and paintbrushes. Shy refugee children joined shy Christ College children. The art teacher provided colourful pictures of chickens, parrots and owls for us to copy. The art in the other room had got well underway while we’d been singing Welsh and banging drums and tambourines, and the human connection and communication had, too; but we were just starting. A round of introductions helped to break the ice a little, and then the Christ College girls hosting our session rose to their task and started to talk to our guests. T, from Nigeria, chatted with them in English; the children, shyer, talked in Arabic to each other. Eugene, artist from Hay-on-Wye and long-time friend of HBTS4R, joined us and M from Sudan joined him in what has become a regular Away Day tableau: Eugene quietly drawing, refugee quietly sitting, an island of stillness and silence amid the voices of many lands and cultures.
After the art, we all trooped down to the Sixth Form kitchen where the baking group had been creating cakes and cookies. Lots and lots of them. I watched as tray after tray of cookies emerged fragrantly from the oven. ‘There were so many cookies we had to do it in shifts’ Poppy, a pupil, tells me. ‘There were TONS’ emphasises Evie, her friend. The room was filled with the warmth from the oven and that incomparable fresh-baked baking aroma, and our bellies filled – and filled – as we ate and ate and the pile of cookies seemed never to go down.
While we were singing, drumming, painting and eating, sports were played in the sports hall and on the playing field, and a small group left us altogether, for a walk around Brecon town. In the sports hall were football and volleyball, and on the playing fields rugby and hurling. HURLING?! Turns out that Christ College teacher Gary Halpin is a native of Kilkenny, the home of hurling. Turns out that Syrians and Africans are open to learning to hurl. Lawrence didn’t have to twist arms to get them to play rugby, either. Despite the Welsh rain. Perhaps that’s a marker for integration. Christ Coll boys wouldn’t get to cry off rugby because it was raining; refugees from Syria and Sudan don’t, either. HBTS4R volunteers Penny and Mac led the walking group, two refugees and two Swansea volunteers, along the promenade and then on out of town along the riverbank as far as the ‘Gurkha gate’ and back into town. The Welsh rain went too, but didn’t dampen spirits: ‘the giggles were virtually non-stop’, said Mac. One of the refugees, a photography student, took photos all the way. A different route back again, through town, and a stop for ice-cream at Llanfaes Dairy before joining us all in the Christ College cafe for tea and coffee, and a mountain of cookies; some the leftovers from the Sixth Form kitchen, and others from Christ College’s own cooks, who had worked an extra shift today to accommodate our Day.
Another thing that happens when refugee mothers and fathers bring their children on respite days is that they are able to relax. N, from Oman, is a respite day regular with her two children, O, who is three, and A, who is two. Little O, typical boy, charges around all day, inexhaustible, grinning, shining-eyed, showing his play-doh-filled plastic egg to anyone who will pay attention (everyone) and assuring us, unsolicited, that he’s ‘not going to fall!’. Little A (her second birthday was yesterday) sits for much of the day on the hip of Lily who had, like many a respite day volunteer before her, fallen, smitten, for this little girl’s charms. For her part L, from Pakistan, sees little of her own three, as they mingle with their Christ College peers. Left to her own devices, L prepared a traditional Pakistani cake that was declared delicious. The multiple returns for seconds and thirds (not only by me) and its rapid obliteration proved that nobody was just being polite. Baking together had cemented a firm connection between L’s youngest, A, and Poppy, from Christ College, who introduced her to the merits of a blow-up toy guitar (‘an air guitar. Literally’). ‘Here, we can relax’, says N, speaking of herself and the other parents who, here, can bring their parental watchfulness down a few notches, secure in the understanding that their children, wherever they are in this crowd, are safe.
But perhaps the most important thing that happens is the feature that refugees highlight, again and again; one that the founders of HBTS4R, in their conceiving of these days, perhaps didn’t anticipate. The days, for reasons we don’t quite understand, enable people to feel ‘normal.’ To feel human again. This is how L tells it: ‘At home, all day, day after day, we are worried about our future, worried about our children’s futures. But here, it is a chance to be ourselves. When I come on these days I can say: “NO. THIS is my life.”’ She is in tears as she expresses this, and we are close to it, too. N puts it just as simply: ‘This is a moment for us to live. When I come here’ she says, ‘I can remember my old days, and I can talk about them. And now I am happy from my heart.’
Because here’s the thing. For most of the refugees in Swansea, the ordeal isn’t over. Legally, they are asylum seekers, awaiting the outcomes of their applications for asylum, a process that can take years. They are traumatised by loss, bereavement, displacement and grief. Everything known and familiar has been left behind; home, culture, tradition, custom, everyday sights and smells and sounds, the familiar lines and contours of rooms, neighbourhoods, streets, buildings, fields and lands; belongings that were treasures then or that have become treasures now through the re-prioritisation wrought by unanticipated loss; the taken-for-granted dearness of your mother tongue providing the soundtrack to every waking moment. They have been traumatised further by the long, arduous and uncertain journey, sometimes months of unrelenting, unbroken fear. They are testament to what human beings can endure. They are also testament to what we can adapt to. And right now, they are adapting; to a new country, a new climate (and whatever else we Brits think we have to offer, none of us makes any flowery claims for our climate), a new language, a new culture; to being unable to provide for themselves and their families (employment is prohibited for asylum-seekers); to enforced dependency on state welfare. To the sometimes ambivalent, often hostile, frequently misinformed narrative disseminated throughout this new culture by its popular media; to inaccurate portrayals of their homelands and the situations they’ve fled and of themselves; to the sometimes ambivalent, sometimes hostile reception of the people already living in the communities in which they’ve landed. To not knowing, as they pass people in these new streets, stand next to them in checkout queues, or approach them at school gates, whether compassion, interest and welcome lie beneath reserved, self-contained demeanours; or something else.
Refugees are adapting to all this. But they are not yet adapting to a new life. Adaptation to a new life isn’t possible until the new life is granted. The new life isn’t granted unless refugee status is granted. And everyone here knows that it often isn’t. The surroundings might have changed; the immediate, life-threatening dangers might have been lifted; some features of stability – food, shelter, children’s education – might have returned. But the uncertainty hasn’t subsided one jot. Nothing is certain; nothing is fixed; there is no real stability. The letter from the Home Office could arrive today or tomorrow or next week, month or year; and it might say yes, or it might say no. People carry on because they must. But nothing is ‘normal’.
We all assemble for goodbyes at the end of the day. A, from Sudan and L, from Pakistan, formally address and thank Christ College for its hospitality, friendliness and kindness. It’s a mark of how ‘normal’ and how relaxed these days make people feel that N from Oman jumps, impromptu, onto the stage beside them to deliver her own unrehearsed thanks.
‘We can’t wait to do it again’ Simon Hill, Deputy Head, tells us all. ‘So I hope this is the start of a wonderful relationship.’ This day was extra special, because of the bringing together of so many children and young people. A developing relationship between Wales’ refugee population and Christ College in Brecon means more of people who are refugees getting a day free of feeling ‘not normal’; and more of people from the UK connecting with the real people behind the headlines, the soundbites and the snapshots from the frontlines – over-filled boats in the Mediterranean, snaking queues at European borders – and discovering that they are just like us. And I also hope that sometime, S gets to play that grand piano to her heart’s content.
Our thanks go out to:
– Christ College, for so many things: for conceiving of and making possible this day, for organising and hosting it
- Emma Taylor, Headteacher
- Simon Hill, Deputy Headteacher
- The pupils who guided us and shared their space with us
- The teachers, ditto
- Emma, Simon and Amanda Golding who provided and drove the minibuses that collected and returned our guests to their homes in Swansea and Ystradgynlais
- Christ College’s kitchen staff, who worked an extra day to accommodate us
– Wayne, Nick and Bethan from Unity in Diversity and Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group
– Morrisons in Brecon, for their unfailing support and generosity – today in the form of bottled water and snack bars – enough for a round the world expedition!
– Aldi in Brecon, also for their unfailing support and generosity – today in the form of £140 worth of fruit and veg
– HBTS4R volunteers Melrose, Robert, Katy, Rachel, Dante, Lawrence, Eugene, Hilary, Mac, Erica, Penny and Ailsa and especially Virginia, for her liaising and organising the Supermarket donations.