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Hay Festival – May 2017

So very many people attending or working at Hay Festival have helped to ensure that we can fund events for months ahead. Thanks to Hay Festival we have raised money, hosted some people seeking refuge, enabled them to attend events and confirmed that most people are actually very kind and generous. Yanis Varoufakis said at the end of his talk when questioned about how Greece coped with people in need of refuge ‘ when a stranger comes to your door in the night cold and wet, you take them in , give them warm, dry clothes, some food and a bed and then you might ask their name.’

We were given access to collect after some superb events and people gave generously. The collection after a discussion between Stephen Fry and Philippe Sands about his new book ‘East West Street’ was particularly apposite, touching as it did upon crimes against humanity and genocide. A comment from Philippe Sands that will stay with me is that ‘if you take a group of people, give them a name and vilify them then you can create an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. Then you can start to disregard their rights and persecute them’. I like to think that our days out help to give a human face to a group of people who are often reviled in the press. Stephen Fry spoke movingly about his Grandfather’s experience of seeking refuge and asked people to give generously . This was a small but full venue and we raised over £1000.

Several of us were privileged  to hear Professor Alexander Betts  talking about a new paradigm for helping people seeking refuge. He is a professor of forced migration and strongly advocated creating a system whereby people  didn’t have to decide between a camp, urban destitution or a dangerous journey but could settle near to their home country, integrate within that country and work . That way they are able to be in a country that may be similar to their own culture,  can contribute by working and looking after their families, develop their skills for the benefit of the host country and subsequently benefit their own country if they are able to return. His point was that instead of disempowering  people in need of refuge, we should give them choices and  a purpose. In doing so, recognise that they are a humanitarian responsibility but that also they are humans with skills, talents and aspirations and the ability to contribute to the society that they are in. So not people in need of charity but people who can by building upon the opportunities of globalisation, markets and travel be allowed to live full lives and enrich the country that they live in.

However, before we reach this much better way of managing the vast numbers of people who are forced to leave their homes, we still need groups such as ours to help to remind people of the need to be welcoming and to show people that we empathise with their situations and can help campaign for  better and kinder policies.

We ran 2 stalls over the bank holiday weekend to give out information, discuss issues and accept donations. Thanks to Richard for access to his drive and to Martha of Love Zimbabwe for sharing this with us and to Juliet of Shepherds for allowing us to be part of Fayre in the Square and to people helping on the stalls, Sean, Ailsa, Barbara, Reg, Stuart, Pauline, Eugene, Brenda, Jonnie, Ceri, Trevor, Rachel, Becky, Paul, Ron, Philip, Lynne, Gerard, Sue, Gez,Janet, Emma, Virginia, Pat, Chris, Steve and Margaret.We sold a few books of  writing by people who have the experience of seeking refuge. The profits from the sale of these books goes to help run Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers  Support Group [SBASSG] as the publisher Hafan Books is part of  SBASSG.

Teddies in need of love were given to children [in exchange for a donation]. The Teddies had labels saying things like ‘I come from Eritrea. Life was very hard for me there so I’ve come here. Can you help me?’ Sue, Janet and Lynne masterminded this and it seems a good way to tell children about people seeking refuge. Various people called by who  also have links with City of Sanctuary and are interested in keeping in touch. We met a publicity officer from UNHCR who was very interested in our activities as a way of showing people they are welcome and helping to integrate and she may wish to use our experience as part of a film about the British Welcome.

During the festival, some people seeking refuge were given the opportunity to act as Stewards and also to attend talks with a plentiful supply of complimentary tickets for which we are very grateful. It really brought home to the group of us involved in arranging these visits just how hard it can be to be sure people have understood what is on offer, for them to plan when they really don’t know if they’ll still be around in the next week and if  they have refugee status and are seeking employment, the Job centre requirements can be very stringent and inflexible. At one stage we thought we might have 10 people visiting over the 10 days but goal posts kept changing and other things cropped up, so that in the end 6 people came to stay with Sarah and Chris on their beautiful small holding.

One acted as steward as he was able to commit to 6 sessions and the others including Jonathan who volunteers at Unity in Diversity [UID] attended events with complimentary tickets as they were only able to come for shorter periods. All said this had been a great experience and how welcome they had been made to feel.

In addition to all of this, PEN Cymru [one of the 145 PEN centres in more than 100 countries across the world and is affiliated to PEN International which is the leading voice of literature worldwide. PEN promotes literature and defends freedom of expression. It campaigns on behalf of writers around the world who are persecuted, imprisoned, harassed and attacked for what they have written. ] held a reception to promote their translation challenge and to listen to some digital stories told by people seeking asylum.

The stories were all told by people currently based in Swansea and it was particularly moving to hear Cyrille talk about his experience of detention as we know him and sobering to realise that the UK has the largest Immigration Detention Estate in Europe. UK Policy results in asylum seekers facing detention at any time, despite committing no crime whatsoever. Detention has no time limit and is not automatically subject to judicial review.  Many endure months and some endure years of indefinite detention. There are no safeguards in place to prevent the detention of vulnerable persons including those who have faced imprisonment, torture and /or sexual violence in the countries from which they have fled. This harmful and expensive practice deprives people of their freedom, their dignity and is damaging to their mental health.’

At the end of a very busy week we have raised enough money to help some of the groups that we work with as well as ensuring that we can continue to run our days out and our hardship fund AND have found that in general people are still very supportive and welcoming and generous. And some individuals seeking Asylum/refuge have been able to spend some time here, relaxing and learning.